Poetry With An Edge: The Acerbic Wit Of Alan DuganIn honor of National Poetry Month, former poet laureate Robert Pinsky shares the work of one of his favorite writers, Alan Dugan, who died in 2003. Pinksy says Dugan was an amusing, soulful and engagingly nasty poet who sang the truth — often with a splash of high-grade vinegar.
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.
Robert Pinsky is the poetry editor of Slate. His new book, Selected Poems, comes out this month.
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.