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.

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I am a writer and editor, artist and activist. I live in Rogers Park, Chicago.

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