Writer of poetry, pulp magazine stories and novels. Occasional critic, frequent contributor to The New Yorker and founding editor of The Partisan Review. Subject of a portrait by Alice Neel, who he used as a character in his fiction about murder at an artist colony, Dagger of the Mind. 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
     of time,
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.

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