Welcome to Pretzels & Bullfights. I’m Beth Winter and today I am featuring American poet Alan Dugan. Mr. Dugan’s first book of poetry won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Awards in 1962. His later work was also honored with a Rome Prize, Guggenheim and Rockefeller Fellowships, the Lannon Foundation Award and the last of his nine books of poems won another National Book Award in 2001.
Alan Dugan’s style was ironic and unsentimental while focused on finding freedom and purpose in the ordinary. He used straightforward language, simple and at times, in- your-face with a hard edge, vulgarities and bawdy terms. When Robert Pinsky presented his review of Mr. Dugan’s “Poems Seven” in The New York Times Book Review, he said that Dugan “set a glittering barb into every phrase.” Nonetheless, his poetry has a message that extends beyond the sensibilities of more upright verse and in this sense, should not be overlooked for his choice of expression.
Although his poetry has some rather provocative titles (“The Asthetics of Circumcision” “Perverse Explanation for Mutilated Statuary” and “Funeral Oration for a Mouse”), he used over-simplified titles for his books, Poems, Poems Two, Poems Three, Collected Poems, Poems Four, Poems Five: New and Collected Poems, Poems Six and Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry.
His imagery, presented in every-man’s language is both vivid and unforgettable as demonstrated in the following poems:
Now his nose’s bridge is broken, one eye
will not focus and the other is a stray;
trainers whisper in his mouth while one ear
listens to itself, clenched like a fist;
generally shadowboxing in a smoky room,
his mind hides like the aching boys
who lost a contest in the Panhellenic games
and had to take the back roads home,
but someone else, his perfect youth,
laureled in newsprint and dollar bills,
triumphs forever on the great white way
to the statistical Sparta of the champs.
(from Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry. Copyright © 2001 by Alan Dugan)
Nothing is plumb, level, or square:
the studs are bowed, the joists
are shaky by nature, no piece fits
any other piece without a gap
or pinch, and bent nails
dance all over the surfacing
like maggots. By Christ
I am no carpenter. I built
the roof for myself, the walls
for myself, the floors
for myself, and got
hung up in it myself. I
danced with a purple thumb
at this house-warming, drunk
with my prime whiskey: rage.
Oh I spat rage’s nails
into the frame-up of my work:
it held. It settled plumb,
level, solid, square and true
for that great moment. Then
it screamed and went on through,
skewing as wrong the other way.
God damned it. This is hell,
but I planned it. I sawed it,
I nailed it, and I
will live in it until it kills me.
I can nail my left palm
to the left-hand crosspiece but
I can’t do everything myself.
I need a hand to nail the right,
a help, a love, a you, a wife.
(from Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry. Copyright © 2001 by Alan Dugan.)
I have read “Love Song: I and Thou” several times to wrap my mind around his message. I have convinced myself that the poem is related to his marriage to his wife but not in the obvious, romantic way. Mr. Dugan and his wife did not believe in marriage as it was as though the establishment had some control over his life. The choice became more difficult when they faced eviction for living together outside of the bond of marriage. I feel this poem is his expression of frustration, surrender and his plea to his wife to join in marriage in order to keep peace. Others have differing opinions of the meaning behind this poem. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts.
Alan Dugan was born in 1923 and died of pneumonia in 2003. This literary maverick left behind a wealth of poetry, all true to his voice and ever-questioning.