Kenneth Fearing’s Jocularity (Part I)

One goal of this blog is to make public & hopefully generate some responses to a current research project, a collection of essays about machismo in twentieth-century leftist poetry. In these posts, I will leave key terms (‘machismo’; ‘leftist’) undefined, focusing instead on particular passages of poetry & scholarship. Very briefly, then, my four initial propositions are that:

  • machismo is a script that coordinate affective responses to narrative strategies through the re/fguring & re/positioning of bodies; the script is learned through socialization and enculturation & is constantly re-learned as new events provoke new responses & dominant/subordinate performance modalities slide across each other;
  • in twentieth-century U.S., a macho culture industry organizes and genres of macho affect; these are so entwined with popular genres of narrative–the Western, the Gangster genre, the Detective story, the Swashbuckling Romance, the War story, and so forth–as to be unfeelable without reference to the various narratives, scenarios, idioms and atmospheres;
  • sometimes countercultures and intimate public cultures politicize machismo, either as a bulwark against unwelcome changes in labor & culture or in the interest of finding new ways to be or not be macho; in practice, these movements change some aspects of the macho script while retaining others;
  • poets are, by their labor, highly sensitized to affects and narratives & many poets have written about shifts in macho culture or used machismo to construct a lyric subject; a close reading of key poems may provide insight into the politics of machismo.

Kenneth Fearing was born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1902. Basic professional & biographical information is available through The Poetry Foundation website and excerpts from Robert Ryley’s Introduction to The Complete Poems (1994) on the Modern American Poetry webpage.  A few details are worth reviewing..

In 1924, after attending the University of Illinois and the University of Wisconsin, Feeling moved to New York, where he increasingly found work by writing for the pulp magazines, a thriving industry in the 1920s. According to Ryley, his original specialty was “soft-core pornography” published under the name “Kirk Wolff.” This began his successful career as a writer of genre fiction that culminated in The Big Clock (1946), a noir thriller. Paramount gave the film adaptation a wide release the following year. Nearly all of Fearing’s novels were written using the same modernist formula. A chain of events in the lives of several characters is described by multiple narrators. The effect is a patchwork of partially overlapping perspectives, a kind of narrative cubism. William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930) is probably Fearing’s prototype. Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon (1950) shares this design, and the “Rashomon effect” describes a plot device in which multiple eye-witness testimonies contradict each other. In Fearing’s novels, the plot usually conforms to the generic conventions of a thriller. a murder has or will be committed, and the protagonist races against a deadline to gather evidence about the crime. In The Dagger of the Mind (1941), the setting is an artist’s colony and the primary narrator, an alcoholic, proto-expressionalist painter, plays both detective & murderer. This is a device similar to one Jim Thompson uses in several thrillers, most notably, The Killer Inside of Me (1952, although Thompson doesn’t employ multiple narrators. In Loneliest Girl in the World (1951), Fearing features a female protagonist & complicates his multiple narrations by having her use a futuristic, computerized recording device that allows her to access multiple conversations & monologues recorded by family members & co-workers.

Before his novels gave his some popular recognition, Fearing’s poetry (beginning with Angel Arms in 1929) garnered praise from more particular audiences. In the 1920s and 1930s he published frequently in leftist journals, such as The Partisan Review and New Masses, and his books were reviewed favorably in such periodicals. By the 1940s he’s become a “darling of the popular front” (Ryley). Clark Gifford’s Body (1942), uses the “Roshomon effect” to narrate a modern version of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. In Fearing’s story, the abolitionists seize several radio stations & broadcast a (somewhat vague) Socialist/Communist message that precipitates a second Civil War. He poetry also earned him considerable praise from significant cultural institutions; he received a Guggenheim, Poetry magazine’s Guarantor’s Prize, and recognition from the National Academy of Arts & Letters.

Fearing’s lifework placed him on a dialogical terrain organized by three audiences. A national public of consumers with a fetish for a particular genre, the thriller. A radicalized public eager for poems that advanced a proletarian/abolitionist view of the world. And a literary public interested in the craftsmanship & originality he brought to the lyric. Fearing developed a macho style that resonated with each of these sometimes overlapping, sometimes disparate publics. A few of Ryley’s observations about Fearing’s childhood help to identify this script. Fearing apparently preferred the company of his father, a successful lawyer who was “often playful” and “surprisingly tolerant” of his son’s “bohemianism.” By contrast, his mother was “almost wholly without humor.” Boyish admiration, jocularity, impish irony, “aww shucks” humor, the impetuosity of spoiled child–all contribute to Fearing’s “hard-boiled” lyricism and feature prominently in his construction of characters, scenes and plots.

“They Liked It,” a poem from Angel Arms (reproduced here from The Collected Poems, p. 73-4), reveals Fearing’s primal montage. In alternating shots, it contrasts a view of Manhattan from the upper floors of an office highrise with conversation bandied between coworkers. The atmosphere is jovial, but tinged with anxiety as the darkness descends.

They watched the lights go on when night fell.

Away below them streets glowed up like topaz necklaces on black silk.

They liked the red eye in the Metropolitan.

And they liked Broadway.

Blake had nothing to do for a while. He talked.

No one in the office paid attention.

“Listen,” he said, “I want advice.

You remember that Swede I was telling about?

I saw her again last night.

I’m going crazy.”

They like the muffled hammer and rasp of the city’s life.

They liked size.

They liked to hear liners in the harbor howl at the sky.

“We went to a flat on Sixty-second.

There were a lot of her friends along, and she took on six of them right under my eyes.

But when I barely touched her she laughed in my face.

‘I’ll take any man in the world,’ she says, ‘but never you.’

I’ve followed her around for two years.

She’s driving me crazy.

What should I do?”

Blake wore checkered socks, carried a cane, had a wife in the Bronx.

No one knew where he lived.

“You lying half-wit,” said one of them, “the last time you told that story the girl was a wop.

Before that she was Irish, and it happened in Brooklyn.

You don’t have to tell us, we know you’re crazy.”

Blake laughed.

They liked to feel the city, away below them, stretch out and breathe.

They liked the Metropolitan’s red eye, and Broadway.

They liked to hear liners on the river baying at the sky.

They liked it all.

Four subjects perform in this momentary drama: a “they” that enjoys watching the city light up at night; Blake, who is not part of the office “in-crowd”; the anonymous, quasi-fictional woman who rejects Blake’s advances; and “one of them,” a hipper colleague, who calls Blake a liar and then commiserates with him. The romantic triad–male rivals, a mysterious, imperious woman–is a convention of the pulp thriller. The anonymity of the coworkers extends into the city they enjoy. “They” are the consumers, a faceless multitude, in love with the city’s entertainments–“topaz necklaces on black silk”–but also its inhumanity–“They like the muffled hammer and rasp of the city’s life. / They liked size. / They liked to hear liners in the harbor howl at the sky.” Sexual banter is another pleasure the city offers, both entertaining & alienating. The poem’s form is precisely calibrated to draw us into the scene; as readers we become the co-workers, consumers of the ordinary spectacle. At first no one listens to Blake, but he keeps talking until they do. The poem uses stanzas to dramatize the accumulation of attention as our gaze of the city is increasingly interrupted. Blake is annoying.

When collective attention finally rests upon Blake, we are given one of the few concrete visual images in the poem: “Blake wore checkered socks, carried a cane, had a wife in the Bronx. / No one knew where he lived.” The specificity tapers off immediately. The poem offers no actual judgment regarding Blake’s appearance; Blake is unremarkable. It’s up to us (the readers, the “they) to interpret his style as evidence for or against his sexual frustration. The aesthetic judgment is a moral judgment. In making the choice to laugh at Blake or not, we, the readers, either align ourselves with the in-crowd, or align ourselves with the self-proclaimed loser.

In any case, Blake is not called out because a coworker has intimate knowledge, but because of inconsistencies in his story: “‘the last time you told that story the girl was a wop. / Before that she was Irish, and it happened in Brooklyn.'” Although the wag depends entirely upon superficial–indeed, interchangeable–details of Blake’s narrative, its these consistent inconsistencies that reveal the truth of Blake’s condition. Blake laughs when his anxiety is partially relieved. On his account, it’s love that’s making him crazy. He’s infatuated with the Swede; she’s an impossible object; he can’t give her up. The co-worker reassures Blake by pointing out the fictional nature of the object. In the macho script, this drama is about the restoration of superficiality. Blake is allowed to return to obscurity; he is brought back into the fold. The object that threatened to materialize is banished back to the zone of anonymous city life. The thing that temporarily inhabited Blake, causing him to complain, returns to Broadway. In this ritual, the jibe is an extension of brotherhood. Competition between dissolves via the expulsion of desire. The “all” in the closing line includes Blake, who was, it turns out, worth a laugh & a poem.

As a literary object, the poem is elegantly crafted. Fearing demonstrates a mastery of the “chops” required for writing free verse in the American idiom. Stanzas construct the drama, the language is idiomatic, the lines balance rhythms and phrasing, not a word is wasted. The modernist sensibility expressed by the form contributes to the political affect the piece conveys. For a poem, its surprisingly coarse. It’s vulgarity resonates with Carl Sandburg’s proletarian city–a husky style, born of the city’s “rasp.” Of course, the poem takes place far above the sprawling dockyards, in an office where bureaucrats enjoy an entirely different pace of labor. In this regard, the poem participates in a mode of muckraking commonly deployed in pulp stories, most notably Dashielle Hammett’s detective fiction. In numerous Continental Op stories and the Thin Man series, Hammett provided a “working class” perspective upon the intimate lives of the leisure class. Like those stories, Fearing’s poem offers working-class readers a view of daily life in the upper offices. But its not likely that the dock workers will encounter Angel Arms–although they may have read Fearing in the pulps. It’s easier to imagine it circulating among a leftist intelligentsia, most of whom work in modern offices, & who could catch a glimpse of themselves in the poem. From this perspective, the poem teases its readers. This jocularity largely defines Fearing’s poetic style.

1.5 x Stein O’Hara

On Wednesday 10 December I joined some other members of the Next Objectivists @ “Lunch Buttons,” a performance event that celebrates the anniversaries of two books of poetry that have been important to me: Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (now 100 years old) and Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems (still fresh at 50). The event, organized by Dan Godston of the Border/Bend Arts Collective, took place @ Beauty and Brawn Art Gallery & Think Space (3501 W. Fullerton Ave). I pieced together passages from several texts by Stein & O’Hara, but not the ones being feted. My recipe called for mixing passages with approximately 1.5 times more Stein than O’Hara. Here are the results:

Through all that surgery I thought

I had a lot to say, and named several last things

Gertrude Stein hadn’t had time for.

–O’Hara, “Memorial Day, 1950”

I. Just So

Now the relation of human nature to the human mind is this.

it isn’t that simple but it’s simple enough

In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is.

the rock is least living of the forms man has fucked

And everybody does say what they do say.

“he isn’t under there, he’s out in the woods”

Any little dog says so.

(from The Geographical History of America, p. 45-55)

(from “Ode on Causality,” Selected Poems, p. 135-6)

II. A Manifesto for Americans

There are so many things to say. But that’s not why you fell in love in the first place, just to hang onto life, so you have to take your chances, and avoid being logical.

If there was no identity no one could be governed, but everybody is governed by everybody. I’m not saying that I don’t have practically the most lofty ideas of anybody writing today, but what difference does that make? Everybody is governed by everybody and that is why they make no master-pieces, and also why governing has nothing to do with master-pieces. Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to. And that is why governing is occupying but not interesting. There’s nothing metaphysical about it. Governments are occupying but not interesting because master-pieces are exactly that they are not.

There is another thing to say.

I think it appears mostly in the minute particulars where decision is necessary. When you are writing before there is an audience anything written is as important as any other thing and you cherish anything and everything that you have written. It dos not have to do with personality or intimacy, far from it! After the audience begins, naturally they create something. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages. That is they create you, and so not everything is so important. In all modesty, I confess that it may be the death of literature as we know it. Something is more important than another thing, which was not true when you were you that is when you were not you as your little dog knows you.

And so there we are and there is much to say but anyway I do not say that there is no doubt. The recent propagandists for technique on the one hand, and for content on the other, had better watch out. Master-pieces are master-pieces in that way and there are very few of them.

(from “What are Master-Pieces and Why Are there So Few of Them,” in Selections, p. 318)

(from “Personism: A Manifesto,” in Selected Poems, p. xiii-iv)

IX. Any German Girl

any German girl


Bob and Ralph and Don, and there was Brock,

how is faTher and mother moved

what floweRs

bUt they did like him that is to say

he was interesteD in

I rise into the cool Skies

with the simple idenTification

of my collEagues

I do not hear

moNey flutters from the windows

(acrostic from “In Memory of My Feelings,” Selected Poems, p. 105)

(acrostic from Brewsie and Willie, p. 3-6)

IV. Regarding Men, Women & Children

If men have not changed women and children have.

So the rain falls

Geography does not look like it does in relation to the human mind.

tenement of a single heart

Men have not changed women and children have.

it fills it up with dirt

Anybody with a human mind can say I mean and they can say I forgot and mean that.

for Old Romance was draping dolors on a scarlet mound

Men have not changed women and children have changed.

and the corn grows

As I say so tears come into my eyes.

(from The Geographical History of America, p. 45-55)

(from “Ode on Causality,” Selected Poems, p. 135-6)

(from Lucy Church Amiably, p. 177-8)

(from “Cornkind,” Selected Poems, p. 181-2)

V. Regarding Relationships between Men, Women & Children, Part I

When I am. When I am I I am.

I am feeling depressed and anxious. I am sullen when all you. When all you have is to have to do what you do when and if you please as I please you do what you do is take off, your clothes off. And all is wiped away.

Away revealing life’s tenderness.

When all that we are is what we are as I am is what I am when you are what you are, we are flesh. Flesh and breath. When I am feeling and. And when and what. And are. Near us as you are.


As you are I become as I am.


Alive and knowing vaguely.

What is and what is important to me. To me above. Me above me. When I am sullen when you are sullen, our clothes our sullen. And what is important to me. Important that is to say if you please important above the intrusions. When the I of incident and the I of accidental.


Which have nothing to nothing nothing to do with life. With my life.

VI. Any German Girl

any German girl


Bob and Ralph and Don, and there was Brock,

how is faTher and mother moved

what floweRs

bUt they did like him that is to say

he was interesteD in

I rise into the cool Skies

with the simple idenTification

of my collEagues

I do not hear

moNey flutters from the windows

VII. Regarding Relationships between Men, Women & Children, Part II

When I am I am in your presence. I feel life is strong. Life and will. And will will defeat all its enemies and all of mine and all of yours and yours in you and mine in me. All of mine in me and all of yours in your me and all of mine in my your me. Sick logic.

And feeble.

Feeble and.

Feeble reasoning and you are cured by being you.

This is according.

To me this is according by. The perfect symmetry of your arms and legs. I am spread out. I am spread making an eternal circle out of together. Creating.

I am a golden pillar beside.

The Atlantic. The faint line.

I feel I am the faint line of hair dividing I are. Your torso gives my mind rest. And I am when and where. Emotions and emotions. Emotion and emotion released. Mind rest which is the mind at rest and emotions their release into the mind rest. The infinite air where since once.

We are where together you are feeling off. And when and what. Since what. Together we always will. Always will will. In this life. This come what. This is what may.

(Steinian transcription of Poem “À la recharche de Gertrude Stein,” Selected Poems, p. 169.)

VIII. It is Not Mayakovsky’s Birthday Today, but It Could Almost Be

A gun is “Fired.”

One of me Rushes to window #13

And one of me raises his whip

aNd one of me flutters up

masKed in dirt’s lust
if the hOrrible happened

How about it.

Yes but you never can tell in a wAr.

we’re here all Right, you betcha we’re here

And they all will

I think we are all Funny, pretty funny

any anti-fRaternisation ruling

Although the Germans did their best


I Know what I don’t want them to be like,
Open mouths gasping

the lungs of eartH

my trAnsparencies could not resist the race!

TerroR in earth,

pink feAthers
like a Gondola

through the strEets

seveRal likenesses, like stars and years,

My quieTness has a number

pistols I have boRrowed to protect myselves

mUrder in their heart!

in the Desert

LiSten, said Brewsie, listen to me.

I wanT to know

as shE is

whIch she does

a maN-eating dog.

(acrostic from “In Memory of My Feelings,” Selected Poems, p. 105)

(acrostic from Brewsie and Willie, p. 3-6)


That is what I mean to be I mean to be the one who can and does have as ordinary ideas as these.

as maps change & faces become vacant

Extraordinary ideas are just as ordinary as ordinary ideas because if you please everybody has to have or have had extraordinary ideas.

the ugliness we seek in vain

What is the use of being a little boy if you are to grow up to be a man.

(from The Geographical History of America, p. 45-55)

(from “Ode on Causality,” Selected Poems, p. 135-6)