Kenneth Fearing lived and wrote during that era when, though Modernism was doing its best to demand that everyone choose a side, the dividing line between high and low art was still wavy, and a few poets were able to stake claims in both camps. Robert Frost is the archetype, though through both fame and artistry, he really removed himself entirely from the spectrum. Carl Sandburg and e.e. cummings are more representative, and Fearing, while lesser in reputation, would be in their group. He also serves as a bridge to the next generation of poets who would jump the fence to popular notice— the Beats— and by his use of found lines and appropriations from popular culture, the Postmoderns.
Kenneth Fearing was born 28 July 1902 in Oak Park, Illinois, to parents who were an uncomfortable mixture, his father a successful attorney, Mayflower-era patrician and casual anti-Semite, his mother a Jew from a distinguished intellectual background (cousins included the first director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, the first director of the Rockefeller Institute, and a winner of the National Book Award). When he was about a year old his mother left his father, absconding with baby Kenneth. When they were found, divorce proceedings were instituted, and each parent was given six months' custody a year. His mother rarely exercised her custody privilege, and his father was loving but lax with his, giving Kenneth mostly over to the supervision of an eccentric aunt, and eventually remarrying and getting a separate apartment with his new wife, leaving his son and the aunt behind.
Fearing matriculated at the University of Illinois, but dropped out after two years. He completed his education at the University of Wisconsin, finishing in 1924, though his degree was not granted until 1938. He became editor of the university literary magazine, but was dismissed for publishing too much modernism and sexuality.
He came to New York in 1924 to live with a girlfriend, Margery Latimer. He had intended to pursue a career in journalism, but Latimer convinced him he should devote full time to poetry, and that she could support him. When she left him in 1928, over such issues as drinking and infidelity, he worked at various jobs. but primarily earned his living writing fiction for pulp magazines. He also received occasional money from his establishment father, who accepted his bohemian life and choice of career, and a regular allowance from his intellectual mother, who did not (a nurse who took care of her in her last years never knew that her son was a famous writer).
He began publishing in magazines, most frequently the leftist New Masses, for which he was a contributing editor 1930-33. From 1935-36 he would be associate editor for Partisan Review, also leftist but anti-communist. In 1929 his first poetry collection, Angel Arms, was published. Subsequent books of poetry were Poems (1935), Dead Reckoning (1938), Collected Poems (1940), Afternoon of a Pawnbroker (1943), Stranger at Coney Island (1948), New and Selected Poems (1956). His novels were The Hospital (1939), written in a disjointed, multi-point of view style that seemed difficult and daring at the time, but presaged future popular TV shows like E.R. , Dagger of the Mind (1941), Clark Gifford's Body (1942), The Big Clock (1946), his bestseller, which has been made into a movie twice, Loneliest Girl in the World (1951), The Generous Heart (1954) and The Crozart Story (1960). The colorful Fearing was also fictionalized in novels by Margery Latimer, Philip River and Albert Halper. He served on the National Council of the League of American Writers, American Writers' Congress (1935) and won two Guggenheim fellowships (1935 and 1939), and the Guarantor's Prize from Poetry Magazine.
Fearing's early work, like Allen Ginsberg's after him, was formal in style and often traditional in language and subject matter. Some of these poems are included in Angel Arms.
But around 1926, Fearing experienced a conversion that he described as sudden— the rumble of a New York City El train intruded on his contemplation of a sonnet about Caesar's centurions, and he realized he had to begin writing about the here and now, in the language of the here and now. His poems, almost overnight, went from describing "the perfumed couch of June" to something "bought at the drugstore, very cheap; and later pawned." The latter line is from "Green Light," a poem that lists things without naming them: fragmented, vernacular and immediate. During this period Fearing wrote his best-known poem, "St. Agnes’ Eve"— best-known because it was to be included as the first poem in ever collection he ever published. "St. Agnes’ Eve" is quintessential Fearing, with hard-boiled images, street language and vivid fictional characters ("Rat-a-tat-tat/ Said Louie’s Gat").
That Fearing was of a time when serious poetry could still be a popular is demonstrated by the fact that his books can be discussed in terms of whether or not they earned back an advance on royalties. The first three did not; Collected Poems did. Part of his popularity can be traced to his politics. The audience for leftist propaganda may be limited, but it is not as limited as the audience for pure poetry, especially modernist poetry.
As his politics grew less doctrinaire, political themes began to fade from his work, and so did his commitment to modernist obscurity. By 1940 his work had become more accessible. He stayed close, in this period, to the classic grand themes of poetry, love and death, sometimes with humor, more often with despair. He continued to create characters— the sort of vivid, desolate urban characters that we associate with the paintings of Edward Hopper.
But by the mid-1940s, a combination of The Big Clock's success and increasing negative criticism of his poetry made him decide to focus exclusively on fiction. The dedication (to mystery novelist Vincent Starrett) of Stranger at Coney Island describes the book as his "Next to last volume, perhaps," and that turned out to be the case. In fact, there was very little new work in New and Selected Poems, and it was not his strongest.
His last years were plagued by drinking, poverty and ill health. He was admitted to Lenox Hill Hospital in New York in June 1961, where he was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma. He died a week later.