• Email
  • Print

Two Poets

Poems 2

by Alan Dugan
Yale, 62 pp., $3.50

Stand Up, Friend, with Me

by Edward Field
Grove, 77 pp., $2.50

Mr. Dugan got a very big hand from the critics for the volume before this, and Mr. Field has won a prize for this first one. The two poets resemble each other in a number of ways, though they contrast in ways that are more important. Both are youngish native New Yorkers, acquainted with urban poverty and loneliness. Both have a number of topics in common, including zoos, masturbation, politics, and their fathers. Both are deeply hostile to current society, Field in a more conventionally committed way. Both have been to foreign parts, and written poems about them. Both have humor, Field’s of a jollying-along, Mr. Dugan’s of a dour disconcerting sort. Both write direct-speech poetry which is, nevertheless, literate and an imitation of rational discourse (Dugan handles this manner, plain nouns and surprising verbs, with extraordinary force and brilliant unexpectedness). Dugan writes in prose syntax and mainly in tight, though unobtrusive, iambics; the bare diction, the syntactical poise, and the harsh emotional thrust remind me at times, when Dugan is at his best, almost of Catullus. Mr. Field holds himself together less tensely, his lines can lengthen and shorten more easily, the kind of speech his verse imitates is of an equally rational but more rambling and amiably digressive sort. Field’s poetic persona is that of a buddy, a sweet guy, and Dugan’s that of a tough and possibly ugly customer. Mr. Field loves to be loved, and Mr. Dugan sounds sometimes as if he loved to be hated. But on the whole he disarms the reader by having his eye mainly on the human proportion and communicative scale of the poem; Field could embarrass some readers by seeming to handle them, with instant coy intimacy, and a cold, tricky sense of timing, rather as Danny Kaye handles a television audience. If one had read Field first, Dugan might taste harsh and even sour; if one had read Dugan first, Field might taste sugary. Dugan seems to me the more original and penetrating, and technically far and away the more accomplished of the two poets, but I shall try not to let my admiration of him make me unfair to Field’s genuine virtues.

The moral gulf between the two poets can be very well illustrated by contrasting Field’s rosy, jolly, boyish, joshing-you-along “Ode to Fidel Castro” with Dugan’s dead-pan, purely hostile and destructive, and desperately funny “Riding Song for a Semi-Feudal Army, for Glubb Pasha, for Tortured Colonels.” Before quoting Field, let me make it clear that I have no disabling prejudice against his political convictions, to which he has every free man’s right. What bothers me, in the following passage, is a coarse quality of spirit betraying, rather than expressing, itself in the language: populistic winsomeness:

So you’re not perfect, poets don’t look for perfect
It’s your spirit we love and the glamor of your style
I hope someday the cameras of the world
Are turned on you and me in some spot like Harlem
And then you’ll get a kiss that will make Khrushchev’s be forgotten
A kiss of the poet, that will make you truly good
The way you meant to be.

Here, by contrast, is a bit of Dugan. It is the end of the third and the whole of the last of four stanzas which in turn repeat, with intensifying irony, the same pattern. A Colonel and his men ride out in the morning, on I take it the Jordanian border, intending to flush a covey of Israelis, but kill only a quail:

The Colonel accepted the gift, laughing,
and turned to the war correspondent
riding beside him and said, “Now

you see why I like to sneak out
of the office and ride with these kids.”
“I see,” said the reporter. “It is vanity.”
“The Colonel got the bird,” said the poet.
“And we rode on after the enemy (six
kibbutzniks debating Martin Buber’s so-called position),
fooling away our fear and dreaming
of peace and glory at the same time,
which is impossible though death is not:
the Israelis are anti-romantic.”

The kind of sophisticated reactionary romanticism that does not really want to die for what it no longer seriously believes in, but cannot give its old gestures up, even in parody form, could not be more tellingly guyed from—as in Burns’s Holy Willie’s Prayer—the inside. But this is not a mere piece of anti-Arabist polemics, since the anti-romantic—or are they?—Israelis are not spared from valid glancing blows in the reactionary romantic’s self-satire:

…six kibbutzniks
debating the yokelization
of the intelligentsia

There is the “coolness at the center,” here, which Saintsbury saw as the mark of the most effective satire.

On masturbation—to shift this comparison from the political to the moral field—in writing about his kid sister, Field manages to be as cosy and reassuring as Dr. Spock, but saves the passage by populism in the good sense, guffawing folk-humor:

I tried to keep you from masturbat- ing
According to instructions in Parents’ Magazine
Which recommend the diversion method rather than threats or punishment.
It was no use, your hand preferred your little cunt to toys I offered
Like the ape in the zoo who was jerking off
And all the kids asked their moth- ers, “What’s he doing, ma?”
So the keeper tried to divert him from his hard-on with an ice- cream cone
But he shifted the cone to the other hand and licked it while he went right on.

The poster-art or strip-cartoon or vaudeville monologue manner plays properly off here. Dugan takes the tragic view of masturbation of the moral theologians; it is a quiet way of defying God in a corner. But instead of God, Dugan defies that terrible hypostatised “They”—also known as Society—which for Field is an ideal, future, unanimous “We.” Dugan writes:

then let my left great-toe-
nail grow into the inside knob
of my right ankle-bone and let
my fingernails make eight new moons
temporarily in the cold salt marshes of my palms!
THIS IS THE WAY IT IS, and if
it is “a terrible disgrace”
it is as I must will,
because I am not them
though I am theirs to kill.

My feeling is that here at least Field has not only the wholesomer attitude but the more effective rhetoric. And yet one respects Dugan for trying to give some poetic dignity to what can be a terribly self-humiliating vice.

Another point of comparison is zoos and animals. Field has a character—I do not know whether imaginary, or out of cartoons—called Sonnie Hugg. Sonnie wants to love and embrace everything, but stops short at a porcupine; before hugging it, one would have to shave off its bristles with a razor-blade or garden shears and then it would look like a sort of rat. But there is a very pleasant, though sentimental and childlike, no doubt, poem about wanting to embrace a baby seal, Ookie, whose nose has been put out of joint by the arrival of two younger seal twins. What Dugan perceives is not the loveableness but the awkwardness and otherness, the imprisonment in dim unreason and subhuman shape, of the animals. A Bactrian camel:

Such is his formal pride.

his gargoyle’s face remains a stone
assertion as he pisses in between his splayed,
seemingly rachitic legs and stays
that way, in place, for want of something else
to do, caught in his double prison all the time.

Or he writes with pity of beached dead sharks, defiant like the camel, but defeated:

What is more built

for winning than the swept-back teeth,
water-finished fins, and pure bad eyes
these old, efficient forms of appetite
are dressed in? Yet it looks as if the sea
digested what it wished of them with viral ease
and threw up what was left to stink and dry.

Viral” from vis—as “virile” is from vir—seems to me an excellent coinage. Sonnie Hugg, stopping short at porcupines, might also stop short at Dugan: bristling defiance, defeat, sense of imprisonment, are his things too. Yet one must be honest, and there seems to me in a sense more genuine poetic love in Dugan’s sullen refusal to be properly grateful to a charitable waitress who once gave him free meals every morning than in Field’s wish (which, of course, in Sonnie Hugg, he mocks at a little) to kiss and cuddle everything, everybody. Field is a Pelagian, Dugan an Augustinian; the first kind of person the world needs more, the second pierces our condition more memorably. We need, of course, all the practical and rational good will we can stoke up in ourselves. But “love,” surely, is something not mechanically at the disposition of the will; it is vital, not mechanical, it retreats as sensitively as it daringly advances. You cannot squeeze out “love” over everything as if it were toothpaste or shaving-cream; Field, though with reservations, seems half to want to; and that surely is masturbation, in a darker sense even than Dugan’s Augustinian one. But the love that is instinctive and spontaneous in Field’s poems—like his love of the Greeks, their goats, their bodies, and their landscape—can produce delightful and genuine poems. It is the fair-ground evangelist in himself that he has to beware. What Dugan, but he is not at that point yet, might have to beware is the moment when self-punishment becomes both an admired social act and a tooslackly repeated habit. But he seems to me the most considerable new talent I have come across in younger poets over some years.

Letters

Comp. Lit. December 12, 1963

  • Email
  • Print