7:00am

Mon April 4, 2011
You Must Read This

Poetry With An Edge: The Acerbic Wit Of Alan Dugan

Alan Dugan, who died in 2003, is an engaging and entertaining writer, but do not call him charming. Charm can be an obnoxious quality in writing, when you can tell that the writer is trying to be ingratiating. Dugan, that amusing, soulful and engagingly nasty poet, sings the truth, often with a splash of high-grade vinegar, and if you'd like it a little sweeter, why, then, the hell with you.

Funny and haughty, radical and lyrical, Dugan's poems race nimbly between the vulgar and the classical, as in possibly his best-known poem, "How We Heard the Name."

The river brought down
dead horses, dead men
and military debris,
indicative of war
or official acts upstream,
but it went by, it all
goes by, that is the thing
about the river. Then
a soldier on a log
went by. He seemed drunk
and we asked him Why
had he and this junk
come down to us so
from the past upstream.
"Friends," he said, "the great
Battle of Granicus
has just been won
by all the Greeks except
the Lacedaemonians and
myself; this is a joke
between me and a man
named Alexander, whom
all of you ba‑bas
will hear of as a god."

That poem is about 100 words long. Some writers need that much space to clear their throats; Dugan goes rapidly from plain American speech like "but it went by, it all/ goes by, that is the thing/ about the river" to the Battle of Granicus, the Lacedaemonians and that Alexander who is in many places called "the Great."

But he is never called "the Great" in Dugan's poem — because, you might say, the poet is that drunk-seeming soldier on the log, who addresses us ba-bas from the messy and appalling river of history. The dead horses and dead men are "indicative of war/ or official acts upstream." I like the dirt-plain repeated "dead" and the mocking "indicative of" and the somewhat daffy "ba-bas"; I admire those phrases for their air of freedom, and for the meticulous, shrewd intelligence that crafted that air of freedom.

The poem's scorn for euphemism, its horror at official violence, its impatience with bland notions of "greatness" also make it a humane artifact, dignified as well as hard-assed. Dugan respects his readers, and shows his respect by avoiding plausible baloney.

In a similar way, when Dugan looks at nature, he respects the mystery too much to find little morals or uplifting visions. In another poem, "Plague of Dead Sharks," Dugan repeats twice a question that begins with the ordinary, two-syllable expression, "Who knows?"

"Who knows whether the sea heals or corrodes?" is the poem's opening and returns as the next-to-last line, preceding the conclusion, with its combined resolution and wonder, about the ocean: "what the sun burns up of it, the moon puts back."

In some complicated way, the ocean both heals and corrodes, and something like the same applies to the inebriated candor of a soldier floating down the terrible river of history, and to Dugan's book Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry, astringent, corrosive, entertaining and full of life.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lena Moses-Schmitt. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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