Writer of poetry, pulp
magazine stories and novels. Occasional critic,
frequent contributor to The New Yorker
and founding editor of The
. Subject of a portrait by Alice Neel
, who he used as a
character in his fiction about murder at an artist colony, Dagger of
. Two movies have been made from The Big Clock
, in 1948
and, as No Way Out
, in 1987.
Born in 1902, the result of a brief misunderstanding (commonly called
"marriage") between his parents. Died in 1961, choked by the ashes of life
(or cancer, if you prefer). Lived, by fits and starts, odd jobs, alcoholism
and royalties that seldom matched his advances, in-between.
As a poet, Fearing was a bouquet of bitter herbs. His work is almost always
humorous, but its humor is dark--and often contemptuous--as the poems piece
through the jumble of trinkets and rubbish which, for Fearing, summed-up the
works of civilized man. Nor did he exempt himself from this judgment; he is
present in his poems as a cynical reporter and sarcastic interrogator, never
as a visionary or healer. Fearing's unwillingness to preach or prescribe
marks him as one of his own subjects--a talented writer hobbled by personal
identification with worthlessness and futility.
This is not intended to suggest that Kenneth Fearing is not worth reading
(though it may give some indication of why he seldom is read); his
perception of life in America during the 1930s and '40s is one-sided, but it
is not otherwise inaccurate or difficult--and he is uncommonly funny on his
special subject: failure. His style is memorable for its sentence fragments,
repetition and phrases from common speech--echoes of Fearing's voice can be
heard in the works of Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Waits, and the lyrics of Leo
Kottke. A Complete Poems was published, finally, in 1994; it is still
in print and includes a biographical section by Robert M. Ryley that was
useful in putting together this write-up.
Here's a sample of Fearing's work:
Recently displayed at the Times Square Station, a new
Vandyke on the face-cream girl.
(Artist unknown. Has promise, but lacks the brilliance shown
by the great masters of the Elevated age)
The latest wood carving in a Whelan telephone booth, titled
"O Mortal Fools WA 9-5090," shows two winged
hearts above an ace of spades.
(His meaning is not entirely clear, but this man will go far)
A charcoal nude in the rear of Flatbush Ahearn's Bar & Grill,
"Forward to the Brotherhood of Man," has been boldly
conceived in the great tradition.
(We need more, much more of this)
Then there is the chalk portrait, on the walls of a waterfront
warehouse, of a gentleman wearing a derby hat:
"Bleecker Street Mike is a doublecrossing rat."
(Morbid, but powerful. Don't miss)
Know then by these presents, know all men by these signs
and omens, by these simple thumbprints on the throat
Know that Pete, the people's artist, is ever watchful,
That Tuxedo Jim has passed among us, and was much
displeased, as always,
That George the Ghost (no man has ever seen him) and Billy
the Bicep boy will neither bend nor break,
That Mr. Harkness of Sunnyside still hopes for the best, and
has not lost his human touch,
That Phantom Phil, the master of them all, has come and
gone, but will return, and all is well.