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Alan Dugan, 80; Poetry Won Pulitzer, National Book Awards

September 09, 2003|Claudia Luther | Times Staff Writer

Alan Dugan, whose blunt yet soulful poetry won prestigious prizes and honors but whose writing was perhaps too unsentimental to attract the legions of fans many thought he deserved, has died. He was 80.

Dugan died Sept. 3 of pneumonia in Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis, Mass.

He was the author of seven books of poetry, beginning with "Poems" in 1961, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and ending with "Poems Seven" in 2001, which also won the National Book Award.

In between were five other books of poems, each simply numbered sequentially to distinguish it from the last.

In 1967, the New York Review of Books, in reviewing "Poems Three," said, "His poems are really studies in character overcome or character unrewarded, inverted belligerent hymns to wrong turnings on the road or of the head, 'how/the traveling was/that got us nowhere.' "

Among those who admired Dugan's work was Robert Pinsky, the U.S. poet laureate from 1997 to 2000, who wrote in a New York Times review of Dugan's "Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry" that Dugan could "set a glittering barb into every phrase."

"Dugan's remarkable achievement is to see into mean or mundane materials with all the profundity and force of poetry," Pinsky wrote. He added, "Where our appetite may be for something heroic, elevating or hedonistic, he is more likely to present us with something like a bill."

Dugan was born Feb. 12, 1923, in New York City to parents he referred to as "highly unexceptional." His father was a salesman whose fluctuating income caused the family to move back and forth between Brooklyn and Queens.

Though Dugan initially thought writing poetry was unmanly, he told the American Poetry Review that he began writing it as a child because he was "in competition with my father -- he used to recite bad poetry at family parties, so I resolved to better him."

After high school, he enrolled in Queens College, and two years later, his first poems were published.

After serving in World War II as a mechanic in the Army Air Forces -- he said he was in Guam when U.S. forces loaded up the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- he resumed his education, earning a bachelor's degree at Mexico City University in 1949. He married painter Judith Shahn, daughter of artist Ben Shahn, in 1955.

Years of writing poetry and working at various jobs followed. At one point, he and his wife produced greeting cards; at another, he made plastic botanical and biological models used as teaching aids.

"I never lasted very long at any particular job," he told the Boston Globe's David Mehegan in 2001. "I would just get drunk one night and get fired, or I would quit."

He finally began to make a living at his writing when his first collection of poems was chosen as the 1960 winner of the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets. "Poems" went on to win the Pulitzer and National Book Award, as well as the Prix de Rome from the Academy of Arts and Letters. Dugan was 39.

From that point on, Dugan lived the life of a professional poet, winning fellowships, reciting his poetry at readings, being a poet-in-residence at colleges and giving lectures.

He taught at Sarah Lawrence, Connecticut College and the University of Colorado and was a member of the faculty of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass.

Dugan, who lived in Truro, Mass., is survived by his wife.




This is a portion of one of Alan Dugan's better known poems, "Against the Text 'Art Is Immortal' ":

All art is temporal. All

art is lost.

Go to Egypt. Go look at

the Sphinx.

It's falling apart. He sits

on water in the desert

and the water table


He has lost his toes to the


blasts of the Saharan


of a mere few thousand


The Mamelukes shot up

his face

because they were


because they were


The British stole his


because they were

imperialist thieves.

It's in the cellar of the

British Museum

where the Athenians lost

their marbles.

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