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 …

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Letters

Comp. Lit. December 12, 1963