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 only formally concerned…
“To me that is a memorable cadence; and I have not heard anything quite like it,” admitted Dudley Fitts, but surely that is only because he hadn’t been listening to William Empson: “Ripeness is all; her in her cooling planet/Revere; do not presume to think her wasted./Project her no projectile…”
Dugan’s poetry is a poetry of opposites, mediated but unresolved: hero and coward, bitch and wife, love and hate. He measures the gap between philosophy and getting on, between morality and the way things are. And then says with a skeptical chuckle that that is the way he is, the way things are, not forgetting to add that both are nothing much. There may be strange smoke spiraling across the river, and perhaps “something is happening, because the air is full of news.” But “nothing” is happening, “otherness” is happening: “a plague that goes from there to here /or here to there.” The poet presents the “text,” and then appends the “gloss,” and the one mocks the other. In Dugan’s sense, character is really broken-backed, and often doubling back; it is burlesqued, musty, and maligned. Matthew Arnold discussing character saw in it something exemplary and indivisible; his formulation was the famous “even-balanced soul” whom “Business could not make dull, nor Passion wild:/ Who saw life steadily and saw it whole.” With Dugan, if you stay with anything too long, if you even look at anything too steadily, you’re apt to slip over the edge. “It is not so bad at Dugan’s Edge,” he concludes in “Letter to Donald Fall,” and the irony is in the noun.
OF COURSE it is hard getting close to someone like Dugan. He faces the world at a precarious angle, peculiarly unflattering to himself, but you’ve only to keep reading to see how much worse it is for the world. In everything he presents, there is a raw, rasping pride, yet the pride is a counter-irritant, nagging away at the whole nature of self-sufficiency and self-esteem. You’re lost on “the wrong side of time,” and when the rescue party arrives to set you straight, they see “you are too far gone to save.” So they leave you marooned in the Alps, but not without a bottle of brandy, and not without saying: “That’s life.”
The grin in so many of these poems is wry, dogged, and elegiac. The grin is wised-up, yet incautions, and no doubt you would have to say that it’s a little corny, too, like the old vaudevillian tumbling about the stage, stabbed in the back, and when asked “Does it hurt?,” sighing “Just when I laugh.” In his latest volume, the poet records a “Rape Unattempted” on “Miss Unknowable, 1964.” And knowing Dugan you know that the date is the real joke—“a bad joke like everything else,” as he remarked characteristically in an earlier poem paraphrasing Asoka. Usually you can catch him wandering irreverently in a world of deadly bureaucratic calm, burning up fuel, bile, and dreams, sounding off and wanting out, or propitiating those “incommensurate enemies,/ the firms, establishment, and state.” In general, his is the common landscape, galling and without grandeur: offices, wives, receptionists, convertibles, air conditioners, wars. All the stepping stones are there, solid and well-spaced; they’re coated with ice, though, or banana peels, and they await the poet done with his “cereal and comic strips.”
…after shaving off the night’s disguises, after searching
close to the bone for blood, and finding only a little,
I shall walk out bravely into the daily accident.
Probably in another age you would have come across a poet like Alan Dugan under a gallows-tree, contemplating a swinging cadaver, contemplating yet another lesson in lost causes. “Lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names, and impossible loyalties!” as Matthew Arnold phrased it, with different reverberations in mind, in his essay on Oxford. As it is there is a wonderful, and perhaps all too suggestive, photo on the dust jacket of Dugan’s first book. The setting is some metropolitan ash heap, and the poet is propped on a stub of broken wall, hands folded over crossed legs, an expression of neat, neutral anguish in the eyes and about the tilted head. The mouth is half open, and the gray delicate presence looks a little like a defrocked priest, perhaps expounding on crisis theology or urban renewal. “Reason, closest to rage in the mind,/what can you do but loiter in the mean?” Reason, rage, gloom. But Dugan’s gloom is his glory: it goads him into a marvelously bristling bad humor, a humor never just droll, never merely sardonic. At its best, the laughter is murderously merry and severe. When it is less than that, it seems to echo all the boozy guffaws in the stories of Ring Lardner. At those moments, though the situation is desperate, it is not serious: you can always be sure a wisecrack is waiting in the wings. “I Have Met The Enemy And I Am Theirs.”
ALAN DUGAN, however, has an iconoclastic and philosophic force quite unlike anything in Lardner. Certainly he is intellectual, and certainly he is “modern.” A number of beliefs, especially Catholic and Marxist ones, undoubtedly took hold of his imagination at one time or another, swelling or falling apart, or bobbing up in blasphemous ways. Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Christ—for Dugan, these figures are so much dead wood. They represent the bugbears: commerce, dialectics, messianic rant. And he flings them to the flames in a poem composed entirely of a demeaning quotation from each. His comment is in the epigraph: Scoundrels! Scoundrels! If life is a system at all, for Dugan it seems to be a system of rewards and punishments, of luck and hard luck. He uses metaphors from the natural sciences, or lessons in evolutionary growth, but always against the grain, the way you say that the ass is a degraded horse, the ape a degraded man. In his world, you give more than you ever get back, and you keep giving at greater cost. The valuables are hoarded, but the valuables become harder to keep, and you cannot grasp your “grasping life.” You may have “a money making job,” and a wife you “still love,” but love itself “changes from spring to garbage,” and even if at moments, and in Dugan’s implausible fashion, you’re still dizzy with earthly delights (“Why is the world so beautiful?”), nevertheless you’re “hopelessly in arrears,” staving off something, surprised by something, especially when you thought there were no surprises left.
You think yourself too old
for loving, gone in the guts
and charms, but a woman says,
“I love you,” a drunken lie,
and down you go on the grass
outside the party. You rejoin
the wife, delighted and renewed!
She’s grateful but goes out
with a bruiser…
Meanwhile, there’s the seasonal slaughter: “McNamara and his band/ can kill a city of lives/ and the life of cities, too.” Still, if you think things were better arranged when princes were tutored by philosophers, just remember Aristotle and his pupil:
“To have good government
thinkers should form the king,”
so when he took his way
he took Real armies with him:
Athens crumbled in the Seen
of Alexender’s sober frown
and tricked his looking to go on
to Porus and the elephants
and drunkenness in Babylon.
What is striking in the poetry of Alan Dugan—the rancorous insights, the self-mocking wit—is paramount in the literature of today, a literature of limitations, an all encompassing grinding down, one that knows you test the strength of a man’s character less by what he denies himself, than by what he’s been denied. ” ‘Be alive,’ they say, when I/ am so alive I ache with it…” But the ache is energy struggling with emptiness.
IT IS IMPOSSIBLE not to like Edward Field. If God said: “Son, I’ll let you have one friend in the next flood. Whom do you want?”—wouldn’t most of us choose Edward Field, at least those of us who’ve read him? Surely it’s because Grove Press does not have a publicity department on the ball (or with them) that the poetry of Edward Field is not recited through the land. Is there anything he likes we don’t? Hollywood, the Jewish people, Aunt Fritzy Ritz, the Cat people, and “the smartest little woman in the USA,/Ladies and Gentlemen: Miss Joan Crawford.” Also: bushy and squushy (“When I think of pussy/it makes me want to piss“) well-it’s-only-natural sex.
Edward Field has published two collections. The first was called Stand Up, Friend, With Me, and now we have Variety Photoplays. Of all the critics who have written on him, only one has been-uppity, berating Edward Field because he thought (perhaps he thought he was Eugene Field) he wrote his poems like little girls with little curls playing Chopin in the afternoon. That man was Marius Bewley. But we forgive him because he must have suffered so being a disciple of Doctor Leavis, old gruff and grum of Scrutiny, and because—who can love a critic? Imagine trying to get cuddly with a critic, even a critic as distinguished as Professor Bewley. I’m sure each one of us would much rather get cuddly with a “giant pacific octopus,” just like Edward Field’s:
Other arms start slipping around my body under my clothes,
they wiggle right in, one around my waist,
and all over, and down the crack of my ass…
There! When you read Edward Field you know what’s what. He writes with such grace, and is so naturally nice (and naturally wise, too), and yet you know he’s had (as who hasn’t?) a tough time. Ah, the shit that young man has stood still for, smiling and misty-eyed.
George writes song hit after song hit
And meets Alexis Smith, a noble society woman with ice-blond hair,
who comes to his mother’s house Friday nights
for the chicken soup and matzoh balls.
“You know Mother Bernstein, up- town we don’t get food like this.”
Need we read more? Isn’t it perfectly clear in perfect funny funky language of the day that that’s how silver screen biographies (of Leonard Bernstein, played by George Gershwin) tell the truth about us all, in spite of Warner Brothers. And isn’t that exactly Edward Field’s “find.” I mean, quite apart from the honesty, verve, and charm of his effortless syntax (but just you try it, baby), doesn’t Edward Field see in all the things serious people scorn, the real nitty-gritty? Isn’t it a relief reading him? He is certainly the only poet I know whose work I can recite and be sure my guests will get it or enjoy it. And how impressionable his style. Even when you look over, as I’ve just done, the story of the tragic times of Judy Garland in her very own words:
When I can’t pace the floor anymore, I read. I read my old newspaper clippings, believe it or not. Or I turn on records of my Carnegie Hall concerts—that’s what Rock Hudson and Marlon Brando tell me to do. They’re wonderful men. You call them, and they’ll drop whatever they’re doing to help you.
—why, my goodness, don’t you think Edward Field wrote it?
He is our Heine and our Morgenstern in a comic strip apotheosis (he owes a bit to Frank O’Hara, too; I’m thinking of O’Hara’s “The Hunter” and “To the Film Industry in Crisis”), and what he tells us, though sentimental (let’s be fair; though remember Dr. Johnson: “sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo”), is also acutely right and moving, even noble:
In panic we want to push the stick away from the spin,
wrestle the plane out of it,
but the trick is, as in everything,
to go with the turning willingly,
rather than fight, give in, go with it
and that way come out of your tail- spin whole.
What Edward Field says (if you pay attention closely) is that all of us are victims, and some of us, alas, are also executioners, but a few of us, every now and then, become quite magically saviors, doing little acts that make that one terrible act of being born and trying to live like a mensch, bearable and almost fun. If Holden Caulfield had not been a prep school dropout, and been instead a dreamer by the Brooklyn Bridge, and learned all about the Buddha and William Blake, not from some deadpan no-talent East Village avantgardist, but from the sweet and smelly lives of Lower East Side peddlers, he might have become blessed, and written poems like Edward Field’s, full of a deep ratty joy and knowledge, bubbly and practically inconsequential, the kind we turn to when at night we wonder where we’re at, and ask: But why are you alone? What does the future hold?—well, then we read the collected works of Edward Field, and grow glad.
November 23, 1967