Thursday, December 8, 2011


Alice Neel's portrait of Kenneth Fearing (1935)

The great American Depression poet Kenneth Fearing was in his roaring early thirties when Alice Neel sat him down for his portrait. Amazingly, the elder painter, long after Fearing was gone, would appear on talk shows like Johnny Carson's forty years later and speak about her portraits and hardy survival. Fearing was one more of the Oak Park~Illinois wonders, born in the summer of 1902 and gone in the summer 1961. Melanoma. He battled years of alcoholism. His poems are terrific, pulp novels gripping (often penned under the name Kirk Wolff), and one or two down to earth classic thrillers like The Big Clock (1946) have been left with us. As fine a film as it is a book. Ray Milland. Charles Laughton. Directed by John Farrow. Top drawer. For the usual literary legacy note, Fearing was the founding editor of The Partisan Review.


Where will we ever again find food to eat, clothes to
-----------wear, a roof and a bed, now that the Wall
-----------street plunger has gone to his hushed,
-----------exclusive, paid-up tomb?
--How can we get downtown today, with the traction
-----------king stretched flat on his back in the sand at
-----------Miami Beach?
--And now that the mayor has denounced the bankers,
-----------now that the D.A. denies all charges of graft,
-----------now that the clergy have spoken in defense of
-----------the home,

O, dauntless khaki soldier, O, steadfast pauper,
-----------O, experienced vagrant, O, picturesque
-----------mechanic, O, happy hired man,
--O, still unopened skeleton, O, tall and handsome
-----------target, O, neat, thrifty, strong. ambitious,
-----------brave prospective ghost,

Is there anything left for the people to do, is there
-----------anything at all that remains unsaid?

But who shot the man in the blue overalls? Who
-----------stopped the milk? Who took the mattress, the
-----------table, the birdcage, and piled them in the
-----------street? Who drove teargas in the picket's face?
-----------Who burned the crops? Who killed the herd?
-----------Who leveled the walls of the packingbox city?
-----------Who held the torch to the Negro pyre? Who
-----------stuffed the windows and turned on the gas for
-----------the family of three?

No more breadlines. No more blackjacks. No more
-----------Roosevelts. No more Hearsts.

No more vag tanks, Winchells, True Stories, deputy
-----------sheriffs, no more scabs.

No more trueblue, patriotic, doublecross leagues. No
-----------more Ku Klux Klan. No more heart-to-heart
-----------shakedowns. No more D.A.R.

No more gentlemen of the old guard commissioned to
-----------safeguard, as chief commanding blackguard in
-----------the rearguard of the home guard, the 1 inch,
-----------3 inch, 6 inch, 10 inch, 12 inch.
no more 14, 16, 18 inch shells.

from POEMS (1935)

Alice Neel: