And Wow He Lived as Wow He Died

The hard-boiled, Great Depression-era poetry of Kenneth Fearing.

By Jason Boog
Poetry Media Services

During the darkest days of the Great Depression, artist Alice Neel painted a surreal portrait of her friend, the poet Kenneth Fearing. In it, the gaunt 33-year-old stares out through owl-rimmed glasses, eye sockets hollow from exhaustion and hunger, a gaping hole in his chest. There, a grinning skeleton perches, spilling a river of blood.

These were dark times. And Fearing was the poet for them.

Eighty years ago he burst onto the literary scene with his reckless and stylized first book, Angel Arms. The strongest pieces were free-form riffs on hard-boiled fiction themes: “dangerous, handsome, cross-eye’d Louie the rat / Spoke with his gat, Rat-a-tat-tat—” snarled “St. Agnes’ Eve.” A majestic revolutionary spirit balanced beside these staccato pieces, like this stanza from “Ballad of the Salvation Army”:

On Fourteenth street the bugles blow,
Bugles blow, bugles blow,
The torpid stones and pavements wake,
A million men and street-cars quake
In time with angel breasts that shake,
Blow, bugles, blow!

Though the poems were written earlier, during the Roaring Twenties, Fearing’s apocalyptic imagery proved timely. Coward McCann published Angel Arms in 1929, within months of the stock market crash that plunged the United States into the Great Depression. Historian Monty Noam Penkower details the meltdown’s subsequent catastrophic effect on the literary scene in The Federal Writers’ Project, stating that between 1930 and 1933, new books published decreased from 10,000 to barely 7,600, magazine advertising dropped 30 percent, and newspaper “mortality rates” reached 48 percent (sound familiar?).

Albert Halper’s 1933 novel Union Square parodies the poet as a drunken wreck: “‘Blow, bugles, blow,’ he mumbled sloppily, ‘and answer, hot dogs, answer, wharking, jarking, karking. On Fourteenth Street the mustard’s green, in Union Square the mob is queen. Blow, bugles, blow, set the wild echos barking. And answer, comrades, answer, harking, larking, farking.’” Alongside Neel’s portrait, these two works present the Fearing of that time as a troubled—and troubling—genius.

He seemed headed for oblivion, but the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP)—a government-funded program that lasted from 1935 until early 1943, employing thousands of writers around the country as oral historians, researchers, and authors of state guidebooks—rescued him, if only for a short time. For some writers, like Claude McKay and May Swenson, the FWP provided a foundation from which they could launch their later careers after the economy picked up. For others, like Fearing, the project provided a brief respite from what came to seem an inevitable decline. But in that brief time, the FWP enabled Fearing to write some of his most enduring works.

In 1935 Fearing published his second collection, Poems. Out of the 20 pieces in the slim volume, eight were first published in New Masses. This new work blasted the bankers, fat cats, and politicians who had plunged the country into an economic dark age. Straight from the pages of New Masses, the bombastic “Dirge” dishes out comic-book retribution. “Wham, Mr. Roosevelt; pow, Sears Roebuck; awk, big / dipper; bop, summer rain; / Bong, Mr., bong, Mr., bong, Mr., bong.” The pop hymn mocks and mourns the domesticity of J. Alfred Prufrock in Fearing’s most famous poem:

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 zowie did he die

The country’s resentment over the economic meltdown electrified the poet’s experiments. Horace Gregory summed it up in his 1946 anthology, A History of American Poetry, 1900-1940: “When his second book, Poems, appeared, the public that had ignored Fearing suddenly discovered his value . . . a generation that was more distinctly urban, that was self-consciously ‘hard-boiled,’ that had shared the hopes and disillusionments of 14th Street in New York and Union Square.”

The populist anger that Fearing kindled resembles 21st-century rage over CEO bonuses and stock market scammers, though no poet today has yet claimed this zeitgeist in the way Fearing captured his. The first print run of Poems quickly sold out, becoming a surprise hit despite the Depression. His success shocked the New York Times books section, earning his publisher headlines for “unusual sale of their volumes of radical verse.”

At the end of the Depression, Fearing reached the pinnacle of his poetic career: praised as an exemplary FWP member, earning Guggenheim Fellowships, and landing a contract with Random House. Sadly, it wouldn’t last. In 1938 he published the poetry collection Dead Reckoning. “[He] was content to repeat the earlier successes of his writing with slight variations on a central theme,” wrote Horace Gregory.

The collection includes “Literary,” a sarcastic advertisement from an imaginary writing school brochure. Fearing rails against “The Literary System” that provides

[a] thousand noble answers to a thousand empty
questions, by a patriot who needs the dough.

And so it goes.
Books are the key to magic portals. Knowledge is
power. Give the people light.
Writing must be such a nice profession.
Fill in the coupon. How do you know? Maybe you
can be a writer, too.

After his singular moment passed, Fearing’s verse would get buried among the “thousand empty questions” that concerned writers after the Great Depression. He found more fame as a novelist in the 1940s, writing a string of novels that climaxed in The Big Clock in 1946. Ray Milland starred in the classic film noir adaptation of the book, which eclipsed the fame Fearing’s poetry once enjoyed.

After his second marriage dissolved in 1952, Fearing spent the last years of his life in his bachelor apartment. He drank pints of whisky every day, cobbling together a living as a publicist, book reviewer, and, once again, pulp writer. The poet lost the fight against the bloody skeleton lurking inside. He died in 1961.

Jason Boog is an editor at mediabistro.com’s publishing website, GalleyCat. His work has appeared in the Believer, Granta, Salon.com, the Revealer, and Peace Corps Writers. This article first appeared on www.poetryfoundation.org. Learn more about Kenneth Fearing, and his poetry, at www.poetryfoundation.org.

© 2009 by Jason Boog. All rights reserved.

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~ by ericedits on August 6, 2009.

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