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April 28, 2004

Two Poets, Each Underappreciated in His Own Way

by Ron Hogan

Monday night previous, I dropped by Poets House, where the Library of America was celebrating the latest round of books in its American Poets Project, with Brenda Wineapple and Robert Polito on hand to read from the selected works of John Greenleaf Whittier and Kenneth Fearing, respectively.

When approached to edit Whittier's poems for publication, Wineapple quipped, she "felt like they were asking me to endure the return of the repressed," as she had been "force-fed" his poems in grade school--and we were all grateful, I suppose, that she read from neither "The Barefoot Boy" nor "Barbara Frietchie," because, really, you can only ask so much of an audience; the most famous of his poems recited was perhaps "Telling the Bees." But all kidding aside, her adult reading found Whittier quite more engaging and exciting than most folks give him credit for, and she even came to admire "Snow-Bound," a particular bane of her youth (a portion of which she read). His verse is especially powerful when it grapples explicitly with the issues surrounding slavery and abolition, the latter of which was a matter of crusade for him. (Edward Hirsch has also discovered this quality upon reading Wineapple's selection; frankly I would like to see these poems taught in American history classes as a vital illustration of the passions raised on Whittier's side of the slavery question.) Particularly striking in this regard are "The Hunters of Men," "Ichabod," and "Letter," a blank verse purporting to be a missive from a Christian missionary on the Kansas frontier:

Here, at the Mission, all things have gone well:
The brother who, throughout my absence, acted
As overseer, assures me that the crops
Never were better. I have lost one negro,
A first-rate hand, but obstinate and sullen.
He ran away some time last spring, and hid
In the river timber. There my Indian converts
Found him, and treed and shot him...

One might also note some of Whitter's Quaker poems; this online selection offers more in this vein than Wineapple, but, as she notes, the collection strives to show the breadth of his range. But on to Fearing...

To the extent he's known at all today, Fearing is perhaps best remembered as the author of thrillers like The Big Clock, which was adapted once fairly respectfully and then cannibalized for the Kevin Costner vehicle No Way Out. But in the mid-1990s, a splendid essay by Thomas Disch turned me on to the fact that Fearing was also a poet quite ahead of his time, so ever since then I'd been hoping the poems would eventually get back into print. And here they are. Polito gave us a good taste of Fearing's range, from his Eliot parody "John Standish, Artist" to the proto-Mametian "How Do I Feel?", which begins:

Get this straight, Joe, and don't get me wrong.
Sure, Steve, O.K., all I got to say is, when do I get the dough?

Will you listen for a minute? And just shut up? Let a guy explain?
Go ahead, go ahead, I won't say a word.

And then there's the cinematic "St. Agnes' Eve," and the Elvis Costelloesque (Polito's comparison, not mine, but apt) "Dear Beatrice Fairfax" and... Fearing, simply put, was a trailblazer in terms of getting the idioms of 20th-century language, the language of cinema ads, tabloid headlines, and the like, into poetry, and Polito is right on the mark when he pegs Fearing as "a link between William Carlos William and Allen Ginsberg." I'm far from the world's expert on poetry, so you can take my advice with a grain of salt, but go out and get the Kenneth Fearing collection already. It's that good.

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