I’m falling in love with Kenneth Fearing: Selected Poems, a book I stumbled across in a used bookstore. Fearing’s name was familiar to me from a couple of anthologies, but they had only given me a taste. Now I’m such a Fearing fan that I’m considering shelling out the bucks for a copy of the 1994 edition of the Complete Poems. It’s nice to know that enough people care that the book is going for big bucks. Makes you think poetry just might matter, and when you die you’re not always forgotten. Fearing will not be forgotten if I have any say in the matter.
I’m getting to be such a Fearing fan that I’m prepared to say that he is an important part of what is known as the New York School of poets because he came before them (his first book was published in 1929. Obituary is from his second book, published in 1935) and his work is so similar to theirs. Fearing demands to be compared to Ashbery, O’Hara and Koch. His work was about the city, about media, addressed consumers of media, and he embraced media without condescension, just the way the New York School and the Pop artists did. He reminds me a little bit of Stuart Davis, a painter who anticipated Pop by the same number of years. But he was ahead of Davis, whose work was still well within the Synthetic Cubism camp. Kenneth Fearing’s poetry does not resemble the poetry of its time nearly as much as it does the work that came after it. He’s as New York as O’Hara, his surreal humor is similar to Koch’s, and he employs a decentering-of-the-author strategy that anticipates Ashbery.
Fearing is easy to read, easy to appreciate, and yet there’s a dark edge to some of the poems. He began publishing the year of the great stock market crash, against a background of soup lines, prohibition and Communist Party meetings, but also radio, newspapers and the new advertising. The poem Obituary becomes deeply disquieting when the good old have-a-cigar voice declaims, “Pick up the body, feed it, shave it, find it another job.” The ice-cold attitude toward death couldn’t be more effective than in the notion of reanimating a corpse to be thrown back into the fray dominated by Big Money. Who, living in a big city like New York with little money and fewer prospects, hasn’t felt a little bit like that at one time or another? In these days of Occupation, polarized government, an extremely uncertain future and social media, Kenneth Fearing’s poetry seems as relevant as ever.