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Mar022011

1962

Poems

By Alan Dugan

Original Publisher: Yale Series of Younger Poets
Current Publisher: Out of Print

Alan Dugan also won the National Book Award in Poetry in 2001 for Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry.


Katie Peterson writes:

Alan Dugan won the National Book Award for the first time in 1961 for his first collection, simply titled Poems, which was also chosen by Dudley Fitts for the Yale Younger Poets Prize. He won again in 2001 for the last book published in his lifetime, which includes that first (now out of print) prize-winning volume, six more books, and what would be his final collection. Dugan’s poems have earned frequent characterizations of “tough talking” and “urban.” In the memorable “Letter to Donald Fall” from the first book, Dugan concludes:

I, as an aging phony, stale, woozy, and corrupt
from unattempted dreams and bad health habits,
am comforted: the skunk cabbage generates its
frost-thawing fart-gas in New Jersey and the first
crocuses appear in Rockefeller’s Channel Gardens:
Fall, it is not so bad at Dugan’s Edge.

“Dugan’s Edge” is where the rest of the poems reside. They teem with proper names, both the hyper-local and the hyper-national. You begin to wish you could get hyper-linked to a wiki of what he’s talking about except that you also feel shameful that your cultural knowledge has been revealed to be so paltry. Dugan delights in the names of things and the roots of words. He writes love poems where intimacy has all the brutality and wordlessness of animal instinct; he writes some of the best poems about animals of the century. His lines are tense and govern expectation by making you so pleasurably anxious you feel compelled to continue to read.

“Dugan’s Edge” may not always, or ever, be a humane world but it’s nevertheless a world for humans. Rage, “closest to reason in the mind” (“On Being Unhappily in Love With Reason”), energizes, clarifies, and brings what is loved proximate: the “Edge” isn’t thrill seeking but truth seeking. If it doesn’t make you angry it’s not worth talking about. Dugan sees beauty but sees it in all its cultural confinement. In the amazing poem, “Poem,” a vision of feminine beauty is also a commentary on commerce:

The person who can do
accounts receivable as fast
as steel machines and out-
talk telephones, has wiped
her business lipstick off,
undone her girdle and belts,
and stepped down sighing from
the black quoins of her heels
to be the quiet smiler with
changed eyes. After long-
haired women have unwired
their pencil-pierced buns, it’s an
event with pennants when
the Great Falls of emotion say
that beauty is in residence,
grand in her hotel of flesh,
and Venus of the marriage manual,
haloed by a diaphragm,
steps from the shell Mercenaria
to her constitutional majesty
in the red world of love.

“Poem” presents an amazing chain of connections—an intimate history of a human brought from the world of buying and selling into “the red world of love.” That world is, significantly, in no way free of buying and selling—the shell Mercenaria is both a clam and a world whose Latin root is the same as the one for “mercenary.” Dugan’s vocabulary may be demotic but his terms of art take the form of the epithet, formalizing makeup into “business lipstick” and the body into a “hotel of flesh,” turning a diaphragm into a halo. To see such a poem as purely ironic is to miss the grandeur of the final two lines.

Dugan’s later work reminds us that a career in poetry is at its richest a life in poetry, and that the poet is responsible to what is neglected, minimized, and swept under the rug. He and his characters are informed as much by how cultural events make the shape of any biography—and diminish that shape—as they are by the hours and rituals of any day. As he describes a soldier,

To me, he seemed diminished
in his dream, or else enlarged, who knows?,
by its accomplishment: personal life
wrung from mass issues in a bloody time
and lived out hiddenly.

 (“Portrait from the Infantry”)

It would be easy to characterize Dugan as “American.” His poems are full of a particularly male Americana, with bars and girls and baseball games. But a reader is also quickly impressed by how little patience the poet has for our myths of self-reliance, and how shamelessly he wants to call us on our delusions of individualism. He knows how badly we want to hide from the brutality of actual self-reliance. I want to read the first lines of the following poem to everyone I know who bells their cat, keeps them inside so that they won’t kill things, or is a vegetarian for ethical reasons:

This is what your cat did to your mouse
while you were out shopping for what, cat food?
It carried it across your lawn in its mouth
and put it down under your flowering rose bush,
and watched it try to get away. It couldn’t.

(“Another Cat Poem. To A Cat Person”)

Either can you, reader. Once again, the funny title is more than funny. If you’re really a cat person, the poem seems to imply (while also reminding us that we live in a culture that has made up the kind of thing that a cat person is), you should probably kind of enjoy this gruesome scene. The alacrity of the line, the concise action of the verbs, the directness of the voice, and the rage displaced onto description all make the argument that we can, even if we don’t exactly like to, watch ourselves watching.  

Dugan was born in 1915 in Queens and published a total of seven books, whose numerical titles are indicative of how little his style changed on the formal surface of the poems. His subject matter continued to range widely. He died in 2003.

Katie Peterson is the author of a book of poems, This One Tree (New Issues, 2006). She has received fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. Her reviews have appeared in the Boston Review and the Chicago Tribune. She teaches literature at Bennington College. (Photo credit: Ariana Ervin)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Robert Bagg for Madonna of the Cello
  • Philip Booth for The Islanders
  • John Ciardi for In the Stoneworks
  • H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) for Helen in Egypt
  • Abbie Huston Evans for Facts of Crystal
  • Isabella Gardner for The Looking Glass
  • Horace Gregory for Medusa in Gramercy Park
  • John Holmes for The Fortune Teller
  • Denise Levertov for Jacob's Ladder
  • Ned O'Gorman for Adam Before His Mirror
  • John Hall Wheelock for The Gardner and other Poems

Poetry Judges that Year: Leonie Adams, William Jay Smith, Mark Van Doren

The Year in Literature: Poems by Alan Dugan also won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • Alan Dugan (1923-2003) was born in Queens, NY.
  • Dugan won the National Book Award twice, in 1962 for his first collection, Poems, and in 2001 for his last collection, Poems Seven: New and Collected Poetry.

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