His themes favor the underdog

Poet: Alan Dugan, who has written poetry half his life, wins his second National Book Award.

November 19, 2001

Alan Dugan might not be an early bloomer, but once he started, he took over the garden.

Dugan, 78, won the National Book Award for the second time last week (for Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry, Seven Stories Press) adding it to a slew of other awards.

He was born on Feb. 12, 1923, to a blue-collar family in New York. After a stint in the U.S. Army, he bummed around the country, went to Mexico, embarked on a series of white-collar jobs and began sending out his verse - with little success.

Dugan didn't publish his first book, Poems, until 1961, when he was 39. But that book was chosen for the Yale Series of Younger Poets and won Dugan his first National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the Prix de Rome.

The resulting prestige allowed Dugan to become a poet full-time. Since his youth, Dugan has considered himself a Marxist, and he writes about themes that other poets avoid, such as the class system, the unglamorous world of work and this country's exploitation of Native Americans.

"His is a fierce, uncompromising integrity," said Michael Collier, Maryland's poet laureate. "He doesn't write to please anybody. He's like an American Philip Larkin."

Dugan lives in Truro, Mass., with his wife, the artist Judith Shahn.- Mary Carole McCauley

Another Cat Poem: A Cat Is Not A Dancer But A Hunter

The cat on its hind legs taking a swipe at a mocking bird was in a serious dance but a stand-off dance with the bird because the cat didn't catch the bird with its claws and the bird didn't beak the cat with its beak: it just amused us, But later the cat won some other encounter. The words "serious" and "dance" did not apply. It came back to us wing-mouthed, (the wings of a fledgling coming out of both sides of its mouth, the bird a bloody fluff in its teeth) expecting our congratulations, expecting us to say Good hunting, Dancer, dancer, oh you dancer.

Stanley Plumly, the University of Maryland professor and poet who chaired the selection committee for the poetry award, said Dugan "gives new energy to the term realist."

"And yet, he's a tremendous artist. He's a committed formalist in the strictest sense of the word," Plumly continued. "His poems absolutely and resolutely match his vision. He also has a devilish humor. He likes to surprise his audience. A contrarian, I'd suppose you say."

On Inter-Relatedness In The Universe

I want to tear you apart.

I said to the butterfly,

in a sexy way,

and did, and it did

not matter: the tear

did not tear up the air

and rip the sky apart

the way it should

in a moral universe

because, you know,

morality is only human,

the universe and bugs

are not. I only made

a butterfly into a worm

like me. But oh,

the wings, the wings:

Do not say these wings

are little frittilary fripperies.

They are great works of art

though small, say, compared

to the Milky Way, or you,

love in your various scales.

The great question is

why are they so beautiful

as the flying stained glass

flimsy windows of the worm's

evancescent flying cathedral.

Elegy For A Magician

Once I got so skinny that I turned pale blue in places and became ethereal against the hard knocks of the broken furniture in the depression years, but when my mother screamed at me through one ear to come and eat my beans, the other ear stayed fixed to the dying radio while Chandu the Magician hissed and whispered me away inside his crackling box, up the aerial and out into the open airways as the blue genie of Brooklyn.

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