Kenneth Fearing’s Dirge
Traditionally, dirges are composed in the form of a song or hymn of mourning as a memorial to a dead person. The very definition suggests that the particular qualities of the dead individual deserve recognition. The dirge is not just written for anyone, but for those deserving of glorification, who survive in the memories of the living as testaments to the greater capacities of humankind. It is against this traditional definition that Kenneth Fearing’s poem, “Dirge”, is working, not only as an overt commentary on the social, cultural, and political factors surrounding the destabilization of 1930’s America but also as an abstraction of the prevalent views of reality: the dehumanization of the human. Fearing superimposes these thematic projects onto the context of the Great Depression, a period of American history often seen as representing overarching society decline, the dull malaise of futility, and the alienation of the individual. Through an exploration of the structural elements of “Dirge”, one can find just how Fearing constructs a particular vision of modernism.
As a prelude to an inquiry into thematic elements of the poem, it is first necessary to draw out the importance of Fearing’s use of experimental form. Fearing “adheres” to the conventional use of strophic poetic construction, making use of epigrammatic style, where the seven stanzas separate the lament into isolated combinations and experiments on language and the content suggests each might stand alone as organic entities. Putting these highly-varied units into a single poem reflects on the incoherence of broader theme of death and the response to death, the dirge, as well as the notion that such a broad topic as death contains many smaller themes, which simultaneously add to and separate themselves from the central theme. The complexity of this construction becomes further apparent through analysis of the formal aspects of each stanza.
In the first stanza, the third-person semi-omniscient speaking voice establishes the conclusive paradigm of the poem: death by suicide. Though the death of the individual is a highly conventional type of tragic presentation, the way in which this presentation is established in the “Dirge” is. The absent function of any emotional signifiers is replaced by a parody of the numerical fluctuations of the stock market. The unnamed man’s death is never mentioned openly, and the circumstances resulting in his death are highly trivialized. Consistent with the market allusion, the reader is left to speculate exactly what sort of concrete events are occurring within in the first stanza. From the very start, the poem challenges any threnodic conventions by disassociating the “subject” of death from the human subject.
Though in stark contrast to the first stanza in form, the two-part second stanza continues with this disconnect of death from the subject in the poem. Each part begins with an emotionally-charged direct address...