Saturday, July 18, 2009

“Evening Song”

I know I’m not the first one to say this, but if you look at the canonical English language poets from the modernist period you’ll notice one glaring absence: leftist writers. This is especially remarkable because so many big name Continental European & South American poets from this time period were leftists who saw their poetry as linked with their politics—Vallejo, Breton, Lorca, Neruda, Rítsos, Brecht, just to repeat a handful of “names.” But who are the very well known English language modernist poets? Pound, Eliot & Yeats, all political conservatives, Pound quite extremely so; even Auden, who had a leftist start, came back toward the center. Meanwhile, other canonized modernist poets such as William Carlos Williams & Wallace Stevens tended to place their poetry into formal or aesthetic contexts more than cultural or political ones.

The reasons for this are no doubt complicated, & involve a number of factors—e.g., the reign of the New Criticism from the 1950s & well beyond; this school preached a doctrine of reading that was fixed on formal considerations, & tried very hard to divorce literary works from cultural context. In fact, it could be said that the Structuralist & Post-Structuralist approaches that superceded the New Criticism continued to focus on form, & that only the advent of the Feminist & Historicism have lit crit types again put a value on reading works within a larger context. In addition, there was a severe post World War II backlash against leftists in the U.S. Eberle & I discussed this question yesterday, & she postulated there’s also a link between a nation’s superpower status & an innate conservatism, & I believe there may be more than a little truth to this. So poets such as Kenneth Patchen & today’s poet, Kenneth Fearing, tend to be very much neglected in any official canon of essential U.S. poetry; & that’s more than a shame. The fact that they also tend to be overlooked by the poebiz community—which has its own formal obsessions & sometimes still seems to be fighting W.C. Williams’ battles—is really rather appalling.

Fearing has a lot to teach us as poets—even in terms of form, not to mention the way he’s able to bring popular culture, slang & idiom & a distinctly “anti-poetic” sensibility to the uses of poetry. In addition to writing poetry, Fearing was also a journalist, a novelist (including several forays into hard-boiled detective fiction). His novel The Big Clock was made into an excellent film of the same name starring Ray Milland.

Fearing’s poetry has certainly influenced my own work, especially the poetry I wrote in San Francisco, & “Evening Song” is among my favorites. Hope you enjoy it too.

Evening Song

Sleep, McKade.
    Fold up the day. It was a bright scarf.
    Put it away.
    Take yourself to pieces like a house of cards.

It is time to be a grey mouse under a tall building.
    Go there. Go there now.
    Look at the huge nails. Run behind the pipes.
    Scamper in the walls.
    Crawl towards the beckoning girl, her breasts are warm.
    But here is a dead man. A murderer?
    Kill him with your pistol. Creep past him to the girl.

Sleep, McKade.
    Throw one arm across the bed. Wind your watch.
    You are a gentleman, and important.
    Yawn. Go to sleep.

The continent turning from the sun is quiet.
    Your ticker waits for tomorrow morning
    And you are alive now.
    It will be a long time before they put McKade under the sod.
    Sometime, but not now.
    Sometime, though. Sometime, for certain.

Take apart your brain,
    Close the mouths in it that have been hungry,
    They are fed for a while.
    Go to sleep, you are a gentleman. McKade, alive and sane.
    A gentleman of position.

Tip your hat to the lady.
    Speak to the mayor.
    You are a personal friend of the mayor's, are you not?
    True. A friend of the mayor's.
    And you met the Queen of Roumania. True.

Then go to sleep.
    Be a dog sleeping in the old sun.
    Be a poodle drowsing in the old sun, by the Appian Way.
    Be a dog lying the meadow watching soldiers pass on the road.
    Chase after the woman who beckons.
    Run from the policeman with the dagger. It will split your bones.
    Be terrified.
    Curl up and drowse on the pavement of Fifth Avenue in the old sun.
    Sleep, McKade.
    Go to sleep.

Kenneth Fearing


  1. John, we're off to see a Major League Soccer game in Toronto today, but I'll be back to read this over again. I love it! I also LOVE "The Big Clock" - have seen it a number of times.


  2. Fantastic poem John, thanks for introducing me to it. I really must read more poetry.

  3. I'm always wary of the'official' canon.This is a great poem from a poet I've never heard of and that's where your admirable blog comes to the rescue.As an (admittedly ignorant) outsider I concur with Eberles postulation that superpower status and conservatism go hand in hand,at official level that is , for the great unwashed have other often more interesting ideas altogether.

  4. Thanks for the introduction to another whose work I do not know. I'm rereading this poem, a real jewel. Thanks for that.

  5. You've delighted us all, John. I don't think I've ever read Fearing's poetry, either. I'll be remedying that, immediately. I loved "Take yourself to pieces like a house of cards." It seemed to set the poem in motion (The rhythm reminded me of "The Acheson, Topeka and the Santa Fe").

  6. Hi Kat & Alan & TFE & Karen & Sandra:

    So glad you all liked it!

    Kat: It's a very good film; we watched it not all that long ago.

    Alan: Glad you liked it!

    TFE: I'm wary of the canon, but also wary of its exclusionary powers--glad that this blog can do its small part to help rememdy that.

    Karen: Thanks! Glad you like Fearing's poem.

    Sandra: I like that line a lot myself; also particularly like "Fold up the day. It was a bright scarf."

  7. I know when I visit this blog I will learn something new. I wish I had more time to actually study your posts - and to study poetry again. I tried to disconnect from cultural context when I was writing short stories and screeplays. It never worked very well. =/

    As a protestant college student I had the privilege of taking 2 classes in Judaism and the holocaust at my Christian university. They were taught by a Jewish rabbi. That same year, I was studying Ezra Pound. When I found out what a semite he was, I never read him again. Such are the passions of a 19-year-old. I was very into Denise Levertov at that time. I think she died recently.

    I'm clueless and have never heard of Fearing. I love this poem. Yes, the poebiz is appalling at times...

  8. i meant anti-semite, which i'm sure you gathered!

  9. Hi Jen:

    Yes, Pound is a very problematic figure (in my opinion). I like Levertov's poetry, tho I haven't read her in quite some time. I wasn't aware she'd passed away, but you're right--she died in 1997.

    Glad you liked the poem, & thanks!


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