POETRY MONTH 30/30/30: Inspiration, Community, Tradition :: DAY 7: Gregory Crosby on Kenneth Fearing
When I moved to New York nearly eight years ago, I became a determined flâneur—in Baudelaire’s formulation, one who walks the city in order to experience it—and although the New York I walked was not 1929 or 1938 or 1943, I heard everywhere, persistent, sardonic, and expansive, the voice of Kenneth Fearing (1902-1961) in the back of my mind. To read Fearing is to suddenly meet Walt Whitman not in a supermarket but in the neon shadows of a film noir. I can think of few other poets who capture the alienation and exultation of urban existence, at once cosmopolitan and proletariat, sophisticated and vulgar. To live in a city is to live at all times inside the human mind: Fearing’s best poems buzz in that hive of loneliness and longing:
X Minus X
Even when your friend, the radio, is still; even when her dream, the magazine, is finished; even when his life, the ticker, is silent; even when their destiny, the boulevard, is bare;
And after that paradise, the dance-hall, is closed; after that theater, the clinic, is dark,
Still there will be your desire, and hers, and his hopes and theirs,
Your laughter, their laughter,
Your curse and his curse, her reward and their reward, their dismay and his dismay and her dismay and yours—
Even when your enemy, the collector, is dead; even when your counselor, the salesman, is sleeping; even when your sweetheart, the movie queen, has spoken; even when your friend, the magnate, is gone.
Many of my favorites of Fearing’s poems, especially longer poems like “Stranger at Coney Island,” thrive on the multitudinous—the constant clash and flash of sensory overload that cities embody, and the strange, soaring hollowness of the Self at the heart of it all:
Dance of the Mirrors
you at night and you in the sun
you, farther than the pylons that walk, charged with
light, across the fields of wheat and vanish
through the hills
you, invincible to change, and vulnerable to every wind
that breathes upon these singing wires
you, and the clouds above the wires, and the sky above
everywhere you, driving, laughing, arranging the day,
efficient at the desk and brisk across the phone
telegrams and you, cocktails and you
you and the image in the glass, and the knock at the
door, then the second image, and the embrace,
you beneath the sculptured slab and raised mound, lost
with the echo of Handel among cathedral
and all of the things that the world ignores, all of the
things that the world has forgotten, all that the
world will never know
you and the glow-worm, you and the rainbow, you and
the desert mirage and the Northern Lights
you, the footstep, you, the drumbeat, you, the firedance,
you, the whirlwind, you, the trigger, the bullet,
the heart, and the shield.
I rarely write in Fearing’s expansive line, but I recognize echoes of my experience of his work in some of my own poems, such as this one:
Hopelessness is a luxury. The day
I bought you violence for your furs I fell
completely, thrown under the omnibus.
The pavement glowed for hours, opaque curbs
where the gutter meets stars slick with oil
& there is no standing. A one-way street,
this. Surely, there was a first spring, when first
the cooling earth tilted toward its millions
of years, as if to say it’s not so bad.
It is spring for a while, even when crushed,
especially when crushed. You pin violence
to fur & give a lift to passerby,
not me, not yet. Spring a crush, the city
a crush, hope a crush, & I, smitten, smote.
Fearing remains obscure, even after the recent publication of Robert Polito’s selection of his poems in the Library of America series, and the revival of his novels The Big Clock and Clark Gifford’s Body by New York Review Books. But his singular voice—far more singular, as Polito points out, than the epithets like “Depression poet” or “Worker’s poet” that attached to him would indicate—should be heard more clearly.
Here’s Polito’s introduction to his selection of Fearing’s work:
And here’s Fearing’s own fascinating preface to his own New and Selected Poems from 1956:
Gregory Crosby’s poems have appeared in Leveler, Court Green, Epiphany, Copper Nickel, Paradigm, Ping Pong, and many other journals that sound like nail polish colors. He is the co-editor, with Jillian Brall, of the online poetry journal Lyre Lyre: www.lyrelyre.com.
[Ed’s note: Gregory and I both teach in the CUNY system, and in addition to the above, he assists the wonderful Pamela Laskin with her work at CCNY’s Poetry Outreach Center. An avid and already energetic participant in ExSt community events, and a former art critic, we look forward to guest posts from him in future! …and so should you! ]