Counter-Songs

Poems Three

by Alan Dugan
Yale, 61 pp., (paperback, $1.45) (paper)

Variety Photoplays

by Edward Field
Grove, 90 pp., $1.95

You can acquire everything in solitude, Stendhal observed, except character. For that you need the crowded arena, men among other men. Language and texture and sensibility—these have always been the principle concerns of poetry. You often speak of a poet’s sensibility, rarely of his character, unless you’re Matthew Arnold, handing out certificates of character, frowning on Shelley or Byron. I suppose Alan Dugan is to be congratulated that he so often, and perhaps so daringly, places his own character at the center of his poems. His poems are really studies in character overcome or character unrewarded, inverted belligerent hymns to wrong turnings on the road or of the head, “how/the travelling was/ that got us nowhere.” In phrasing and movement, the poetry is always flashing, muscular, active. Yet the actions are rarely grand, at times they’re almost impoverished, almost reactions. “The soldiers marched, the cowards wept,/and all were wetted down and winded, crushed.”

Dugan has a strange armored singularity, and he can do more with a shrug of the shoulders, or a phrase like “Fuck the rest,” than any of his contemporaries now writing. Though he will reconstruct an historical anecdote, or recall Irish censorship or the infantry, he has a splendid way of spreading himself over any subject, making it seep through him, speak for him. Even weeds serve his purpose:

Nevertheless, they do do
what they do or die, surviving all
catastrophes except the human.

He is complex, cantankerous, and middle-aged. Also very American. Yet he seems to possess that true weather-beaten eye, that bardic appetite that looks for nothing, accepts nothing without a fissure in it, the “lewd scratches” which “mar design.” Dugan has few themes and few variations, but all of his poems have a grudging pathos or jaunty comic eloquence, and all run true to form or character. His is the truth that there is nothing so tragic that someone somewhere will not think of as comic. What he has seen he gets down, and what he has experienced he lets you know about. Alan Dugan is the first to tell you that his false teeth are “new,” his health habits “bad,” and that there’s “frost-thawing fart-gas in New Jersey.” His songs are not really songs at all, but “counter-songs,” snatches of back-alley spleen, scraps of lust, habits, and habitats, “army verse I’ve said and heard…in enlisted men’s latrines.” He is unsparing in tone, and rather rough in matters of craft. The second collection was not up to the first, and the third is not up to the second. Yet even the slightest of Alan Dugan’s efforts, even his short barks of disgust, has something of his particular stamp, density, and mind. I would say that Catullus and Donne, Howard Nemerov and especially Carlos Williams have helped him over the hurdles. And here and there one other poet, too.

Dugan’s deathward, darling: you
in your unseeable beauty, oh
fictitious, legal person, need
be …

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Letters

Grafitti December 21, 1967