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On "Dirge"

J. Paul Hunter

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.

from The Norton Introduction to Poetry. Copyright © 1986, 1981, 1973 by W. W. norton and Company, Inc.

Rita Barnard

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.

From The Great Depression and the Culture of Abundance: Kenneth Fearing, Nathanael West, and Mass Culture in the 1930s. Copyright © 1995 by Cambridge University Press.

Ellen McWhorter

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

Christopher Simeone

Kenneth Fearing’s “Dirge” offers the history of a life systematically crushed down by the capitalist culture of the Depression-era United States. The rhythms of “white collar drudgery” (Barnard MAPS) pitilessly preside over his life, death, and its aftermath. Yet in recognizing the capitalist social order that gradually erodes his life, we should be cautious in our understanding of what exactly the system has crushed. Has capitalism ruined an individuality that could have been? Rita Barnard seems to suggest this interpretation:
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.

Invoking the cultural theory of Horkheimer, Barnard calls “Dirge” a poem about “an individual life that shrivels or dissolves amid the institutions and forces that govern contemporary life” (Barnard MAPS). In a non-capitalist society free from the institutions of mass reproduction and capitalism, life could be experienced as unique; the individual could craft a genuine narrative of his/her own meaningful distinctiveness. This reading is indeed appealing to contemporary audiences that may also feel a sense of compromised individuality in an age of pervasive mass production. Yet I argue that Barnard, by misunderstanding Horkheimer, consequently misunderstands the contours of capitalist critique in Fearing’s poem. Barnard imprecisely and inaccurately glosses Horkheimer’s ideal of humanity fragmented by capitalism as individuality—“distinctive personal character” (Barnard MAPS). Like other labor poems of the 1930s, “Dirge” does not long for an authentic individuality, but rejects the project of individuality itself as a construction of bourgeois society. To buy into individuality in the first place, suggests Fearing’s poem, is to buy into “a life of repeated motions and purchases that in the end add up to nothing” because individuality and bourgeois capitalism are inseparable, mutually constitutive historical developments.

As they explore the brutality of the capitalist order, 30s labor poems consistently hinge on utopian imaginations of human collectives. Even the lone dead vagrant of Rolfe’s “Season of Death” stands in for a wider community of crushed and impoverished human beings. Sol Funaroff’s “Man at the Factory Gates” is in fact many men who face similar hardships. The broken bodies of John Beecher’s “Report to the Stock Holders” comprise a larger body of exploited workers. A sense of violated individuality, I suggest, is incompatible with the collective political thinking of these and other contemporary labor poems. While such poems may indeed work to restore humanity, dignity, and particularity to their subject matter (think, for example, of Tillie Lerner Olsen’s “I want you Women up North to Know” or Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead), they do not dwell on the intricacies of an individual subjectivity. In chorus with these poems, Fearing does not so much long to recover an authentic individuality as he eulogizes bourgeois individuality itself. The social alternative to Mr. bong’s life is precisely what “Dirge” and other labor poems are thinking through.

If a personally unique sense of individuality could ever be thinkable outside the terms of consumer capitalism, such an individuality lies outside the poem’s imagination. In “Dirge,” individuality itself gains shape only through bourgeois fantasies of accomplishment, accumulation, and domestic stability. “O executive type,” the narrator laments,

[…]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?

Certainly, the executive type would relish the opportunity to own an expensive car (“floating power” and “knee-action” refer to refinements in car engines and suspension, respectively), marry a famed symbol of commodified beauty, or win games of skill and chance that stand in for effortless triumph in all aspects of life. By realizing these white-collar dreams, the “executive type” would indeed achieve a kind of uniqueness. But these markers of individual distinction bind him unambiguously to a capitalist system of status commodities and competitive opportunism. If we reversed the unfortunate outcomes of the poem’s opening lines—if his lottery numbers had hit, if his Carbide stock had climbed, if his lucky horse had paid off—the man might gain individual distinction for his skill at playing the system, but his sense of self would be no less contained by the social mechanisms that ruthlessly punish him for his lack of success. The social order that offers the glitzy hope of personal advancement—the rags to riches story—is the same social order that mercilessly shuts off the man’s gas and forecloses on his property. To attempt the “certain, certain way” to live one’s own “private, private life” is to welcome all the cruel violence that capitalism has to offer. Individuality does not exist outside the poem’s economy of life, because the category of individual itself becomes thinkable only through capitalism.

The poem’s exaggerated comic language helps to expose the senselessness of the man’s life project. “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.” This rhetorical turn is conspicuous in a poem that advertises itself as a funerary lament. The poem’s comic book words—blooie, zowie, bam, etc.—are not the relics of an evacuated mass culture of the arts that render individuality impossible, as Barnard suggests. Would we expect Fearing—a pulp writer at different times in his career (MAPS Ryley)—to write a poem that denounces mass-reproducible art? Insead, the mock-heroic onomatopoeia presides over a life that is anything but heroic. This absurd juxtaposition reveals the flawed project of individual greatness; the only proper eulogy for this routinized life is a tragic, exaggerated silliness. The poem’s closing lines intermix “wham,” “pow,” “awk,” and “bop” with “Sears Roebuck” and “Mr. Roosevelt.” Thus, the “big dipper” and “summer rain,” terms that appear in the closing lines of this elegiac narrative, become evacuated profundities that stand in for serious reflection on a life lived and lost. The only thing left to say at the end of this life is a nonsensical collage of capitalism, government, and sentimental convention. The bell’s final tolling, then, accomplishes what the man’s life project has been working toward all along—the erasure of humanity in the pursuit of individuality: “Mr., bong, Mr., bong, Mr., bong.” The bell’s tolling interrupts his life tribute at exactly the moments where it would uniquely name him.

Copyright © 2006 by Christopher Simeone



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