Dugan’s Last Poems

I must admit I was beginning to tire a bit of Dugan’s Poems Seven by the time I finally finished it. Luckily, the last section entered some new areas, and Dugan’s sense of humor came to the fore, probably because by the time you reach eighty that’s about all you have left.

I seriously thought about citing a poem called “Another Cat Poem, To a Cat Person” but reconsidered when I recalled I still might need to ask for some technical assistance on updating my site.

Besides, this poem seems to have a more universal appeal and provides a cleaner answer to those who argue that America was founded on fundamental Christian principles:

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF CORN IN AMERICAN HISTORY

After the Puritans landed at Provincetown
and the women washed their dirty clothes
their men marched to Truro to perform
their first political act: theft.
They stole the Indians' corn
buried on Corn Hill, so why
is there no monument to them
or corn on Corn Hill in Truro?
For the same reason that there is no
working laundry in Provincetown:
Cleanliness is next to godliness,
thievery is next to Americanness,
and we must not publicize
that this country was made
by a bunch of dirty crooks.

I wish I’d found this poem while I was still teaching American Lit; I would have introduced it during that boring, beginning section when the texts introduced Puritan “literature,” which consisted almost solely of sermons and self-serving diaries.

I’m sure most students wouldn’t even recognize this as “poetry,” since it seems so different from what’s usually taught as poetry. In retrospect, this poem reminds me more of the Beat poets than traditional American poets. There’s an immediacy and grittiness usually lacking in popular poetry that can be found throughout Dugan’s poetry. It often seems to offer gnomic truths reminiscent of Emerson or Thoreau’s aphorisms, but, unfortunately, it lacks the rhythm and power that made Whitman’s re-statement of the same ideas unforgettable.

Dugan Poems Five

I’ve decided that I need to finish reading Dugan’s Poems 7 or I’ll put it down and forget it about without ever finishing the book. Truthfully, though, some of the poems are beginning to wear on me, or at least irritate me.

While it may have been a secret in some distant past that men are often horny and dream of making love to a woman, it’s pretty old news now, so it’s rather hard to get excited by poems like this:

TO A COLLEAGUE. FROM THE COUNTRY

I’m jealous of your life. What
are you doing out there. You’re
probably having a drink at that
bar and trying to get into you-
know-whose panties and joking with
those friends of yours I don’t
even know while I am sitting here
all alone in the snow having no
fun. Man, man to man, I hardly know
you so why are you doing this to me.

Perhaps I’ve just read too many Beat poets, but there doesn’t seem to be much that’s going be learned from a poem like this. Hell, it’s probably best left as an email sent to a close friend, or, even better, just kept to yourself.

It might be worth blogging or writing a poem if you DON’T feel horny anymore. Oh yeah, I think I did blog on that when I was taking some medicine before my prostate surgery. Now, that was an UNUSUAL feeling well worth writing about.

Luckily, there are enough poems like this one that do appeal to me to keep me reading until I can finish the book. (And the rain outside helps a little, too.)

APOLOGY (TO THE MUSE)

I’m so unaware of what
is going on around me that
I like to watch the brief lives
of the birds: they look around
before they take a seed because
they’re always there at present,
self-accounted for in their fears,
hungers and the necessaries
of their rites, whereas I
do not see approaching cars
forget dinner and my address
and realize your beauty
only after you have made a pass
and gone away, saying, “Oh well.”

As I visit other blogger sites that I link to, I often discover just how unaware I am of the world around me. Birds, though, birds I know.

Just this morning walking in the mist I heard the cry of the Pileated Woodpecker, the thump, thump, as he dug deep into the tree rot, and finally located him across the street high in the top branches of a dying tree. Squawking blue jays announced our arrival. While Black-Capped Chickadees flitted back and forth chirping chick a dee dee dee.

Dugan’s Poems Four

I always find it a little annoying when I’m reading a poet who I think I like and I go through a hundred pages without finding a single poem that interests me. Then, suddenly, in the next hundred pages I find dozens of poems that I like. But that’s precisely what’s happening as I read Dugan’s collected poems.

I didn’t like many poems in Poems Three, but I find more poems I like than I’d ever try to write about in Poems Four. I hope it has something to do with shifting themes, since it’s generally content, and not style, that attracts me to a poem. Certainly one of his new themes that I enjoy is man’s relationship to nature. Though it is secondary to his notable poems about love’s physical nature, it’s found in several of his later poems.

Despite the fact that I was fond of several of these poems, my favorite poem was this one, which doesn’t seem related to any of his major themes, but somehow seems more relevant to my own position in life than most poems I’ve read:

UNTITLED POEM

I never saw any point
to life because I suffered
all the time, but now
that I am happy or bored
for whole days out of pain
I regret my past inactions.
Oh I could do nothing else.

I am almost too old
to learn about human life
but I try to, I
watch it curiously and try
to imitate its better processes.
So: First pleasures after hard times,
Hello in time for goodbye.

First, I like the deprecating sense of humor, perhaps ‘cuz Mike accused me of being serious all the time yesterday. Not so, it’s my sense of humor that has managed to get me through my life without serious breakdowns. If it hadn’t been for the television program Get Smart, I doubt I would have ever made it through Army training, and certainly not through Vietnam.

I used to think that if I could just suffer a little more I would be more creative. Than I suffered most of the things my generation suffered, like war and divorce, and a few of my own, and was too busy suffering and trying to overcome the suffering to worry too much about creating art.

Retired, having finally escaped the demands of just earning a living, I’m happy most of the time, though it’s challenging being happy very long without becoming bored. When you find time to really embrace those things you love in life, you wonder how the heck you could have missed them in the rest of your life.

Dugan’s Poems Three (1967)

I’m finding Dugan’s Poems Three (1967) a little more depressing, perhaps more realistic, than his first two books of poetry so the reading is going slower than before.

Although “Adultery” was written during the Johnson administration it seems even more appropriate during the Bush administration, where Republican criticism of Clinton’s behavior seems strangely hypocritical when viewed in light of their international policy.

ADULTERY

What do a few crimes
matter in a good life?
Adultery is not so bad.
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. Blood
passions arise and die
in lawyers’ smiles, a few
children suffer for life,
and that’s all. But: One memo from that McNamara and his band
can kill a city of lives
and the life of cities, too,
while L.B. “Killer” Johnson And His Napalm Boys
sit singing by their fire:
The Goldberg Variations.
So, what do a few crimes
matter in a neutral life?
They pray the insignificance
of most private behavior.

I doubt that it’s only the Daily Show that has noted the irony in the fact that Republicans were ready to impeach the President over his sexual acts but are incensed when liberals suggest that lying in order to lead the country to war and ignoring Constitutional Rights in order to protect us from terrorists are impeachable offenses.

Strange that those demanding a return to “traditional Christian values” find it acceptable to drop smart bombs on our enemies, even when they’re women and children.

To me, it’s even stranger that Conservative Christians have joined in an unholy alliance with Ayn Rand conservatives and Capitalists when it’s clear that most businesses are basically amoral, concerned solely with the profit margin. Few seem above pushing sex as a means of improving the bottom line.

Of course, if we do fall victim to this kind of mentality, then we run the real danger that “Blood/passions arise and die/in lawyers’ smiles, a few/children suffer for life,/ and that’s all.” In the grand scheme of things, personal indiscretions certainly don’t have the huge effects our government’s actions have, but I can’t imagine anything worse in my own life than thinking that my children would suffer for life because of my immoral actions.

As an INTP, I’d also suggest the possibility that such tears in the moral fabric of society threaten to destroy the social matrix that provides structure and meaning to our lives, which I hasten to add does not mean that I’ve suddenly joined Christian conservatives on a moral crusade.

Dugan’s Poems Two

When I first read Alan Dugan’s Poems Two while in college, I kept a record of poems I liked on a notecard, a notecard that I transferred over to his collected poems when I bought it last year. I thought it might be interesting to compare my favorites then and now. I liked less poems this time, but the two I did like were two of those I liked when I first read.

I’m not sure whether it’s frightening or comforting that I chose the same poems forty years later. Although I’d like to think my tastes have improved with age, I guess I could rationalize that I had as good of taste then as I have now, at least in poetry.

i guess you’ll have to look at the two poems which seem, to me, at least to represent some Dugan’s greatest strengths. I suppose “Credo” must have seemed particularly relevant to me as a college senior who was about to graduate and had spent most of his college career studying poetry, with absolutely no desire to purse a career in teaching at a college:

CREDO

They told me, “You don’t have
to work: you can starve,”
so I walked off my job
and went broke. All day
I looked for love and cash
in the gutters and found
a pencil, paper, and a dime
shining in the fading light,
so I ate, drank, and wrote:
“It is no use: poverty
is worse than work, so why
starve at liberty? when I
can eat as a slave, drink
in the evening, and pay
for your free love at night.”

I’m sure this poem resonated with me because one of the reasons I didn’t pursue a career in the arts was precisely the fear of starving. I’d seen my father work way too hard to earn a living to ever want to go down that road myself.

On the other hand, after spending four of the best years of my life studying poetry I wasn’t exactly looking forward to spending the rest of my life working for a bank or for Dun and Bradstreet.

You’ll notice, though, that the poet wrote “It is no use: poverty/ is worse than work” but it doesn’t say that he actually went out and got a job. It might be significant that this poem appears later in the volume:

ARGUMENT TO LOVE AS A PERSON

The cut rhododendron branches
flowered in our sunless flat.
Don’t complain to me, dear,
that I waste your life in poverty:
you and the cuttings prove: Those
that have it in them to be beautiful
flower wherever they are!, although
they are, like everything else, ephemeral.
Freedom is as mortal as tyranny.

I’ll have to admit I was often, though not always, attracted to the young girls who hung around poetry circles. Rejecting arbitrary forms of beauty was appealing, at least until I noticed leg hair sticking out of the dark nylon stockings. My recent trip to Boulder, Colorado, however, caused me to wonder whether living an alternative lifestyle might not have some rather deleterious effects on both your health and looks, at least as you begin to age.

Alan Dugan’s Poems Seven

I still remember vividly the fist time I read a book of poems by Alan Dugan. It was the first quarter my senior year, and the class had to review a book that hadn’t been covered in class. I chose Alan Dugan’s Poems 2, probably because it had won either the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry that year.

When I got my paper back one comment stood out, “Do you think this is poetry?” Well, duh. Ya think? After all it had been chosen as the best book of poetry that year by people who knew a hell of a lot more about poetry than I did as a senior in college. Besides, I really liked a number of the poems. In fact, I immediately remembered them rereading them all these years later.

It was the only “C” paper I got my senior year, and what I’d failed to realize until later was that Dugan had beat out my instructor for that award that year. Never underestimate the ego of a poet! Strangely enough, grades meant so little to me then that the instructor has remained one of my favorite poets ever since I had him for a class my freshman year in college.

One of my favorite poems from Dugan’s first book of poetry is this one:

Poem

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 Mercenairia
to her constitutional majesty
in the red world of love.

I’m not sure whether I liked this so much as a twenty-one year old college senior because I was horny or simply because I admired the understated title. The fact that I still like it suggests, though, that I think there’s an important truth behind it, one that it’s easy to overlook on in our daily encounters judging people by the demands of their jobs.

Of course, it’s Love that helps us to transcend our daily selves. Without it, we’re all in danger of becoming mere appendages of our jobs, as cold and efficient as our jobs too often demand.