Sunday, March 05, 2006

Sunday Poet: Alan Dugan

On Finding the Tree of Life

After Genesis 3: 22-23

If there is an outside out there
one should go out to try to find it.
This I did. There is a garden world
out there, with birds, trees, and the tree
they call The Tree of Life. The birds
avoid it, naturally. The bunched of red
berries are intact except for one bunch. It's
partly eaten. The spoor around the tree
is old, but it would indicate that some
stupid godforsaken human or beast
had staggered around and crawled away
in the first agonies of immortality.
It's too bad for it, whoever it is
and will be: our own deaths are bad enough.

This is my first reading of Alan Dugan. I discovered him this morning by randomly opening my anthology of Contemporary American Poetry and reading what I found. I liked his directness and use of language. I really like that he simply numbered his collections, rather than naming them.

As a selection of the Yale Series of Younger Poets (given only for first collections), a volume for which he also won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, he was launched into the stratosphere of American poetry with first offering (he was already forty years old).

Here is some biographical info from the Academy of American Poets:
Alan Dugan was born February 12, 1923, in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in Jamaica, Queens. He began his undergraduate education at Queens College in 1941, but after two years he was drafted into the Army Air Forces. He resumed his studies at Olivet College and received a B.A. from Mexico City College in 1949. For the next ten years, Dugan held various jobs in advertising, publishing and medical supply in New York City while he began his career as a poet.

Dugan's volumes of poetry include Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry (Seven Stories Press, 2001), winner of the National Book Award; Poems Six (1989); Poems Five: New and Collected Poems (1983), Poems 4 (1974); Collected Poems (1969); Poems 3 (1967); Poems 2 (1963); and Poems (1961), selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets and winner of the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. He has also received the Levinson Award from Poetry magazine, the Prix de Rome from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Dugan was a member of the faculty of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and lived in Truro. He died of pneumonia on September 3, 2003.

From an article about Dugan shortly after he died:
When he learned that his first book would be published by the Yale Series of Younger Poets, he was working for a physiological-model manufacturer making plastic vaginas that showed doctors’ patients how to properly insert diaphragms.

I guess that helps explain the matter-of-factness of his poetry, a trait some readers describe as "obviousness." He doesn't use "elevated language," as might an Eliot or a Pound. He has more the daily diction of William Carlos Williams, a language that does not try to "pretty things up."

In choosing a flattened diction, he also chose to avoid sentamentality in his verse, which earned him a bit of reputation as nihilist, voicing the darker aspects of human nature.

My sense is that the quality and significance of Dugan's verse is all over the board. When he hits, he's very good. When he misses, he is very pedestrian. I think this is one of the drawbacks of early success--you can publish anything.

Here are a couple of other poems I found on the Web:

After your first poetry reading

I shook hands with you
and got a hard-on. Thank you.
We know that old trees
can not feel a thing
when the green tips burst
through the tough bark in spring,
but that's the way it felt,
that's the Objective Correlative
between us poets, love:
a wholly unexpected pain
of something new breaking out
with something old about it
like your new radical poems
those audible objects of love
breaking out through nerves
as you sweated up on stage,
going raw into painful air
for everyone to know.

On Looking for Models

The trees in time

have something else to do
besides their treeing. What is it.
I'm a starving to death
man myself, and thirsty, thirsty
by their fountains but I cannot drink
their mud and sunlight to be whole.
I do not understand these presences
that drink for months
in the dirt, eat light,
and then fast dry in the cold.
They stand it out somehow,
and how, the Botanists will tell me.
It is the "something else" that bothers
me, so I often go back to the forests.

Alan Dugan on the Web:
PoemHunter: 5 poems
Academy of American Poets
American Poems: 6 poems
The Pedestal Magazine: A Retrospective

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