Wednesday, April 6, 2011
Number 117: Kenneth Fearing "Green Light"
Bought at the drug store, very cheap; and later pawned.
After a while, heard on the street; seen in the park.
Familiar, but not quite recognized.
Followed and taken home and slept with.
Traded or sold. Or lost.
Bought again at the corner drug store,
At the green light, at the patient's demand, at nine o'clock.
Re-read and memorized and re-wound.
Smashed, put together, and pawned.
Heard on the street, seen in a dream, heard in the park, seen
by the light of day;
Carefully observed one night by a secret agent of the Greek
Hydraulic Mining Commission, in plain clothes, off
The agent, in broken English, took copious notes. Which he
Strange, and yet not extraordinary.
Sad, but true.
True, or exaggerated, or true;
As it is true that the people laugh and the sparrows fly;
As it is exaggerated that the people change, and the sea stays;
As it is that the people go;
As the lights go on and it is night and it is serious, and just
As some one dies and it is serious, and the same;
As a girl knows and it is small, and true;
As the corner hardware clerk might know and it is true, and
As an old man knows and it is grotesque, but true;
As the people laugh, as the people think, as the people
It is serious and the same, exaggerated or true.
Bought at the drug store down the street
Where the wind blows and the motors go by and it is always
night, or day;
Bought to use as a last resort,
Bought to impress the statuary in the park.
Bought at a cut rate, at the green light, at nine o'clock.
Borrowed or bought. To look well. To ennoble. To prevent
disease. To entertain. To have.
Broken or sold. Or given away. Or used and forgotten. Or
Hap Notes: If you have never read any of Kenneth Fearing's (1902-1961) poetry, it is my great pleasure to introduce you to him. His poetry is sharp, littered with advertising and literary references and muscular with irony and wit. Then, when you are reading a barbed and bitter passage, a beautiful, lyric sentence will emerge startling you with its truth, abruptly the poem will dive back into street-wise sardonic patter. I think he's incredibly under-rated. He's a thrilling read.
It's really no wonder he can thrill a reader. He wrote a bit of soft core porn and pulp fiction in his career. His crime thriller, The Big Clock, was twice made into a movie, first with Ray Milland with the original title, later as No Way Out with Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman where it was updated for the times. That book gave Fearing his only financial stability. He was a freelance writer/poet who never held a "regular" job for more than six months at a time throughout his entire life. He struggled with poverty most of his life.
Fearing was born in Oak Park, IL (Hemingway's home town) and he went to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana and later, the University of Wisconsin. In his lifetime he wrote seven books of poetry and seven works of fiction (with his own name.) He made most of his cash from his fiction and his family, who often gave him money to survive. While much of his poetry was written during the 'Great Depression', he cannot be sloughed off as merely representative of his era. His work is vibrant and sharp and witty and wise.
In today's poem we see his bright-work polished down and mysterious. What is "it"? Sometimes it seems like a person, sometimes it's something noisy, sometimes it's for a headache, sometimes it's...what? A radio? A watch? A drug? It seems to be found in a drugstore on a corner by a traffic light. Maybe it's something not so cheap, maybe it's just something we treat cheaply. And why is it called "green light" and not "red light"? I'll let you ponder this a while.
Here's a good Fearing quote: "There can be a unique exhilaration in creative writing, and it can offer the surprise of final discovery. These qualities exist in life (sometimes), and if they are not to be found in a verbal presentation of it, then the reader (or audience) has been cheated and the writer has been killing everyone's time. This excitement and surprise must be real, not counterfeit, and have in it the breath of those crises upon which most people feel their lives are poised, sometimes crossing into them, in fact, and then rarely with routine behavior, seldom with standardized results."
You can find more Fearing here: www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/kenneth-fearing