Kenneth Fearing, Poet

If poetry didn’t have a bad rap in the eyes of American readers and publishers, the poems of Kenneth Fearing would never go out of print. They’d be shelved alongside the crime novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and read just as often. One of his novels–The Big Clock (1946)–has attained that status. It’s both an NYRB Classic (2006) and included in the Library of America Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s. And another of his novels, less noir than surrealist, Clark Gifford’s Body, is also available as an NYRB Classic.

Not that they’re out of print at the moment. Thanks to the Library of America’s American Poets Project, a fine collection edited by poet and biographer Robert Polito has been available, if somewhat sporadically, since 2004. In fact, you can grab a copy for half price ($10) now, which is partly why I’m deviating today from my usual practice of sticking to books that are out of print: Kenneth Fearing: Selected Poems.

If you’re cheap like me, you can also find a number of Fearing’s poetry collections online at the Internet Archive and the Open Library: Poems (1936), with an introduction by the also-sporadically-out-of-print Edward Dahlberg; Afternoon of a Pawnbroker (1943) (which is probably my favorite title of a book of poems); New and Selected Poems (1956), the last collection published before his death; and even the Library of America collection, Selected Poems (2004). The only complete collection, however, Complete Poems (1994), from the Phoenix Living Poet Series, is scarce and goes for over $40 a copy. His other collections, for those interested, are generally available used for less than the Complete Poems: Angel Arms (1929); Dead Reckoning (1938), Collected Poems of Kenneth Fearing (1940); and Stranger at Coney Island (1948).

Born in Oak Park, Illinois, outside Chicago, Fearing moved to New York City in 1924 and survived by working as a writer and reporter for any place that could pay his rent. His first attempts at fiction were knock-off stories for pulp magazines with names like Paris Nights and Snappy. He also got involved with radical organizations and often wrote movie and book reviews for New Masses. Between 1938 and 1943 he published a book a year. By the end of the 1930s, he’d worked his way into the mainstream of magazine work, spending time on the staff of both Newsweek and Time. The latter furnished much of his inspiration for The Big Clock, which is about the conspiracies and corruptions spun out by an ambitious publisher who might be mistaken for Time’s Henry Luce.

Something about the guy sparked the interest of other writers. At least three different novelists incorporated him into their novels: W. L. Rivers in Death of a Young Man (1927); Margery Latimer for This is My Body (1930); and Albert Halper for Union Square (1933). And in 1935, Joseph Mitchell, still working for the New York World-Telegraph, profiled him in a piece titled, “‘Drunken Poet’ of Greenwich Village is Not the Most Respected of Singers.”

The fact that Fearing was already known as the “Drunken Poet” at the age of 33, with just two books to his name, gives you a clue to one of the reasons his work fell into neglect. Like Delmore Schwartz and too many other fine writers of that hard-drinking time, Fearing tossed his life and talents on the pyre of alcohol, which happily consumed them and went on looking for victims. In his remarkable book, American Night: The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War (which features Fearing on its cover), Alan Wald writes of Fearing: “… his sensational alcohol addition was evident from his college days, records in memoirs and the diary entries of his friends over forty years, a prevailing feature of autobiographical characters in his novels, and confirmed by his autopsy.” The one time he hit the jackpot in a big way, making the equivalent of half a million dollars in today’s terms for the film rights to The Big Clock, he quickly blew it on booze and bad business deals. As Nicholas Christopher writes in his introduction to the NYRB Classics edition of The Big Clock, “Eventually he became a fall-down drunk who suffered frequent blackouts and for long stretches might not bathes, wash his hair, brush his teeth, or change his clothes.” When he was dying of lung cancer and melanoma in a hotel room in New York City, he tried to dull the pain with cough syrup laced with codeine, the favorite over the counter narcotic of its day.

This kind of destruction not only takes its toll on the artist but on his family, friends, and fans. People find it easier to tune out than to hang in, particularly when the creative work dwindles and gets replaced by inertia or mania. It’s hard to look past the ranting tone of Fearing’s introduction to New and Selected Poems, titled “Reading, Writing, and the Rackets”:

The revolution that calls itself the Investigation had its rise in the theaters of communication, and now regularly parades its images across them, reiterates its gospel from them, daily and hourly marches through the corridors of every office, files into the livingroom of every home….

The only acts the Investigation does not perform in public are those intimate financial transactions by which each great and little Investigator reaps the just reward due his superior insight, virtue, and the grave responsibility of exercising so much power. There, the reticence is rarely broken, and then only in moments of awkward, but human, misunderstanding. Yet that reserve may stem logically enough from a cardinal tenet in the gospel advanced by every tribunal of the Investigation: The need for secrecy is great, and growing.

Today, however, it’s possible to read this and not necessarily pass it off as ravings. As Polito has noted, Fearing’s work in many ways anticipates the work of Gaddis, Pynchon, and De Lillo in its depiction of “the systems of corporate life, offices, business, technology, work, money, and desire.” In a Poetry in America interview with Polito on YouTube, Elisa New says that Fearing captured “the moment when Americans realized they lived inside of systems, and that makes Fearing the perfect poet. What’s terrible in a way, what’s existentially terrible, as well as being hungry and in fear of losing your house, is that you don’t control your life–the banks do.” Which is another reason why it’s worth taking a look again at Fearing.

But the primary reason to take a look at Fearing’s poetry is that it is like almost no other American poetry I know (not that I am an expert). Fearing’s poetry drew its inspiration not from Keats, Whitman, or Eliot but from talkies, radio, tabloids, comic strips, and street talk. Take what is perhaps his most famous poem, “St. Agnes’ Eve,” from Angel Arms:

The dramatis personae include a fly-specked Monday evening,
   A cigar store with stagnant windows,
   Two crooked streets,
   Six policemen and Louie Glatz.
Bass drums mumble and mutter an ominous portent
   As Louie Glatz holds up the cigar store and backs out with
Officer Dolan noticed something suspicious, it is supposed,
   And ordered him to halt,
   But dangerous, handsome, cross-eye’d Louie the rat
Spoke with his gat,
   And Dolan was buried as quickly as possible.
But Louie didn’t give a good god damn,
   He ran like a crazy shadow on a shadowy street
   With five policemen off that beat
   Hot on his trail, going Blam! Blam!-blam!

It’s hard not to imagine Edward G. Robinson or James Cagney reading that. Just the titles of Fearing’s poems make me want to read them: “Jack Knuckles Falters But Reads Own Statement at His Execution While Wardens Watch”; “Lunch with the Sole Survivor”; “Agent No. 174 Resigns”; “Payday in the Morgue”; “Cracked Record Blues”; “Travelogue in a Shooting-Gallery”; “A Dollar’s Worth of Blood, Please”; “Love, 20¢ the First Quarter Mile”; “Confession Overhead in a Subway”; “The Juke-Box Spoke and the Juke-Box Said.” Open any of Fearing’s books of poetry and you are instantly carried back to a street in mid-century Manhattan, usually in the wee hours of the morning:

4 A. M.

It is early evening, still, in Honolulu, and in London,
   now, it must be well past dawn;
But here, in the Riviera Cafe, on a street that has been
   lost and forgotten very long ago, as the clock moves
   steadily toward closing time,
The spark of life is very low, if it burns at all—

And here we are, four lost and forgotten customers in
   this place that surely will never again be found,
Sitting, at ten-foot intervals, along this lost and
   forgotten bar,
(Wishing the space were further still, for we are still too
   close for comfort)
Knowing that the bartender, and the elk’s head, and the
   picture of some forgotten champion
(All gazing at something of interest beyond us and
   behind us, but very far away)
Must somehow be aware of us, too, as we stare at the
   cold interior of our lives, reflected in the mirror
   beneath and in back of them—

Hear how lonely the radio is, as its voice talks on, and
   on, unanswered;
Notice how futile is the nickel dropped in the juke-box
   by a customer,
How its music proves again that one’s life is either too
   humdrum or too exciting, too empty or too full,
   too this, too that;
Only the cat that has been sleeping in the window, now
   yawning and strecthing and trotting to the
   kitchen to sleep again—
Only this living toy knows what we feel, knows what we
   are, really knows what we only think we know.

And soon, too soon, it will be closing time, and the door will
   be locked;
Leaving each of us will be alone, then, with something
   too ravaging for a name
(Our golden, glorious futures, perhaps)—

Lock the door now and put out the lights, before some
   terrible stranger enters and gives, to each of us, a
   a question that must be answered with the truth—

They say the Matterhorn at dawn, and the Northern
   Lights of the Arctic, are things that should be
They say, they say — in time, you will hear them
   say anything, and everything.
What would the elk’s head, or the remote bartender say,
   if they could speak?
The booth where last night’s love affair began, the spot
   where last year’s homicide occurred, are empty
   now, and still.

(No wonder that “4 A. M.” is often reprinted below a reproduction of Edward Hopper’s iconographic painting, Nighthawks.)

Fearing’s America has not an ounce of nostalgia in it. It’s a world of sleepless nights, hangovers, relentless capitalism at times indistinguishable from crime, and an unending sense of dread:

First you bite your fingernails. And then you comb your
   hair again. And then you wait. And wait.
(They say, you know, that first you lie. And then you
   steal, they say. And then, they say, you kill.)
from American Rhapsody (4)

And, in response, his Americans turn to their drugs of choice:

A La Carte
Some take to liquor, some turn to prayer,
Many prefer to dance, others to gamble, and a few
   resort to gas or the gun.
(Some are lucky, and some are not.)

Name your choice, any selection from one to twenty-five:
Music from Harlem? A Viennese waltz on the slot-
   machine phonograph at Jack’s Bard and Grill? Or a
   Brahm’s Concerto over WXV?
(Many like it wild, others sweet.)

Champagne for supper, murder for breakfast, romance
   for lunch and terror for tea,
This is not the first time, nor will it be the last time the
   world has gone to hell.
(Some can take it, and some cannot.)

Though Fearing’s work suffered in his last years, and no new poems were published after the handful that close New and Selected Poems, his anxiety burned brightly to the end. The last poem in that book, “Family Album (4),” subtitled “The Investigators” radiates with suspicion and the sense of a lost self:

Close your eyes tight, turn around three times, reach
   and pour and stir,
(It says in the rules, one wish per man)
Whatever it is, this is bound to be something final and
Open the valve, who’s got a match?—


Kenneth Fearing died in Lennox Hill Hospital in Manhattan in 1961. He was 58. Another exhibit in the case for William Carlos Williams’ argument that the pure products of America go crazy (using the Merriam Webster definition (“full of cracks or flaws”)).

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