How We Heard the Name
How We Heard the Name
Alan Dugan 1956
Written in 1956, “How We Heard the Name” appeared in the multiple award-winning Poems of 1961. While Alan Dugan’s verse had been published in magazines prior to 1961 (he received an award from Poetry magazine in 1946), it would be difficult to exaggerate the impact of his first collection. As Helen Chasin wrote in reviewing a later volume, Poems 4: “Never a promising young poet, Dugan showed what he could do, which was considerable, in his first book.”
“How We Heard the Name” is typical Dugan. The poem concerns a chance encounter between a soldier and a group of shepherds in the aftermath of an ancient battle, but with Dugan the “aboutness” of a poem can never be reduced to subject matter alone. Its tone ironic, its language colloquial, “How We Heard the Name” is a mordant rumination on history, ambition, and identity. It is a deeply personal poem yet also a deeply impersonal one. It is, in short, a bundle of artful contradictions held together by an idiosyncratic sensibility. Writing in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, Thomas McClanahan stresses the “equivocal stance” adopted by Dugan toward his subject matter, his readers, and, most of all, himself: “He is in many respects both observer and participant, withdrawn and involved, writing from a distance about things that matter greatly to him.”
Alan Dugan was born on February 12, 1923, in Brooklyn, New York. He attended school in Brooklyn and in Queens, then he entered Queens College, New York, in 1941. His studies were interrupted by service in World War II. Following the war, Dugan completed college first at Olivet College, Michigan, then at Mexico City College, Mexico, where he received his B.A. in English in 1949. He remained at Mexico City College for an extra year of graduate study before returning to New York City, where he spent the next ten years in a variety of non-academic jobs, including publishing, advertising, and as a model maker at a medical supply house. But he was writing poetry all the while, and in 1961 his first book, Poems, was published.
Poems was selected for publication by the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets. Reviewing the book in the April 27, 1961 issue of the Christian Science Monitor, critic Philip Booth enthused: “Alan Dugan’ poems make up, clearly, the most original first book that has appeared on any publisher’s poetry list in a sad long time. Poem by poem, he happily defies literary pigeonholing.” What followed was a degree of commercial and critical success rarely matched by a first book of poems. In 1962, the book won three major awards: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Prix de Rome (awarded by the American Academy of Arts and Letters).
Thanks to the publicity and prize money attached to these awards, Dugan was able to devote himself more intensively to writing and traveling, supplementing his income with teaching stints at various colleges and universities. In 1963-64, for example, he lived in Paris on a Guggenheim Fellowship; in 1965-66, he was a guest lecturer in poetry at Connecticut College; and a Rockefeller Foundation grant staked him to a year of travel through Central and South America in 1967.
From 1967-1969, Dugan lived in Bronxville, New York, serving as poet-in-residence at Sarah Lawrence College. Since 1969, he has been associated with the Fine Arts Work Center in Province-town, Massachusetts. He has continued to receive awards for his work: the Shelley Memorial Award in 1982, the Melville Cane award in 1984, and the American Academy award in 1985. His poetry appears frequently in the American Poetry Review, Poetry, and other journals.
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
The first 8 lines of the poem constitute a single long sentence written in everyday language. Its tone is conversational, musing, but also matter-of-fact. The narrator of the poem is reporting something to his listeners. As the poem’s title suggests, it is the story of how the narrator and his friends happened to hear a certain name for the first time. The first two words and the last two words of the sentence are identical: “the river.” This embeds a circular structure within the linear flow of the poem, like an eddy spinning in a direction opposite to the prevailing current of a river. Even as the poem runs on past the end of the first sentence, the echo of “the river” works in the reader’s mind to return them to the beginning of the sentence.
Between the appearances of “the river” is a list of items carried downstream in the current: “Dead horses, dead men / And military debris, / Indicative of war / Or official acts upstream.” The narrator and his fellows are standing on the bank of the river watching as the carnage of war drifts by. Their attitude is reflective, as if what they are seeing doesn’t really involve them: “But it went by, it all / Goes by, that is the thing / About the river.” Notice the juxtaposition of simple, direct language that conveys the grim reality of slaughter—“dead horses, dead men”—with abstract language that removes itself from the bloody reality of war: “Indicative of war / Or official acts upstream.” Such stark juxtapositions of language and imagery are one of the primary ways that Dugan infuses his poem with irony. Poetic irony, according to the definition offered by Babette Deutsch in Poetry Handbook: A Dictionary of Terms, is “a statement that contradicts the actual attitude of the speaker or a situation that contrasts what is expected with what occurs and always having overtones of mockery.”
Suddenly, in the midst of this liquid conveyor belt of death, comes life: “Then / A soldier on a log / Went by.” Curious, the narrator asks the drunken soldier what has happened: “Why / Had he and this junk / Come down to us so / From the past upstream.” There is something comical in the image of a drunken soldier clinging to a log, yet this touch of the absurd is another ironic juxtaposition; it underscores, rather than erases, the impression of casual horror Dugan is carefully developing. Here, for the first time, the river is explicitly linked to time in the phrase “the past upstream.” This phrase has a multitude of meanings. From the perspective of the narrator, upstream literally equals the past, not just in time but in space, for once something reaches him from there, whatever event set it in motion has already taken place. But it also refers to time itself, and to history. If time is the river, then history is simply “this junk” carried downstream in the flow of time. Remember Dugan’s artful suggestion in the first eight lines of the poem that the flow of the river may be circular as well as linear. If the river of time can also flow in a circle, then history will inevitably repeat itself. Dead horses, dead men, and drunken soldiers may go drifting by, but sooner or later, in some sense, they will return.
From this point, the soldier seems to take over the poem. The narrator’s voice is not directly heard again. Yet this is essentially an illusion; it should not be forgotten that the soldier’s words are being recited by the narrator as they were originally spoken to him and his friends along the banks of the river. It should also be remembered that just as the narrator is concealed behind or within the voice of the soldier, so, too, is Dugan, the poet, hidden behind the voice of the narrator, and the voice of the soldier as well. Although the soldier addresses the narrator and his fellows as “Friends,” it is clear that his attitude toward them is far from friendly. His words are fairly dripping with contempt and irony: “The great / Battle of Granicus / Has just been won / By all the Greeks except / The Lacedaemonians and / Myself.” What can his listeners on the riverbank know of the Battle of Granicus, the Greeks, and the Lacedaemonians, let alone the identity and personal history of this soldier who refers to himself with such an air of embittered self-importance? Their knowledge or ignorance is irrelevant to the soldier, for he is primarily talking to himself here, as bitter, self-important people often do. But just as the soldier’s audience may be mystified by these terms, so, too, might Dugan’s contemporary audience be unfamiliar with the Battle of Granicus and the Lacedaemonians. In a sense, then, Dugan is addressing the readers of his poem with the same contempt and irony the soldier lavishes upon his audience. The difference, and it is an all-important one, is that Dugan’s readers are free to educate themselves about these terms and the history to which they refer. In fact, Dugan provides the clues they need to do so and thus enter into a deeper understanding of the multiple ironies of his poem.
A quick check of any encyclopedia will reveal that the Battle of Granicus was fought in 334 B.C. between the armies of Alexander the Great and the Persian Empire. The meaning of the soldier’s words is clarified by the fact that Alexander’s forces were made up of soldiers drawn from all the Greek city-states, with the exception of Sparta, whose citizens also went by the name of Lacedaemonians.
Only now, at the poem’s end, is the name referred to in its title revealed, the riddle answered. True, that information is implicit in the information conveyed in the immediately preceding lines, but the name itself, Alexander, does not appear until line 22. The revelation comes in an almost offhand way, drenched in even more contempt and sarcasm than has heretofore characterized the soldier’s speech: “This is a joke / Between me and a man / Named Alexander, whom / All of you babas / Will hear of as a god.” The term “ba-bas”— an example of the poetic device known as onomatopoeia (a word whose meaning is indicated by its sound and which replicates the sound of the thing it represents)—shows that the narrator of the poem and his fellows are shepherds, and its use by the soldier demonstrates his sense of his own superiority to them.
That sense of superiority is also seen in the soldier’s characterization of the outcome of the Battle of Granicus as a joke between him and Alexander the Great. Even as the soldier talks about Alexander with disdain, mocking his aspirations to godhood, he puts himself on a level with Alexander as if he, too, might have an equal claim to god-hood if he cared to assert it. Encyclopedias inform readers that the Greek mercenaries who fought on the side of the Persians in that battle were led by a Greek named Memnon, and that Memnon escaped the slaughter of his troops at the close of the battle. Readers have ample evidence to assume that Dugan expects them to make the connection and identify the anonymous soldier as none other than General Memnon himself in the act of deserting his men in a decidedly ignominious fashion.
Yet the poem does not become mired in its dense underlay of history. On the contrary, just as General Memnon is being carried past the observers on the riverbank, shouting out private jokes and allusions his listeners cannot understand, so, too, Dugan seems to be saying, is the stuff of history ceaselessly flowing by daily lives, its warnings ignored or understood incompletely. Knowing that history repeats itself, and that Alexander the Great, for all his brilliant conquests, was dead at the age of 33, and proud Memnon remembered only because of his link to Alexander, Dugan finds little to emulate in the soldiers of the world. Nor does he cast his lot with the shepherds. Rather, Dugan sees himself, in his poetic calling, as partaking of both, yet belonging to neither. By no means is this a source of solace or self-congratulation. Readers should bear in mind that Dugan, a veteran of World War II, was himself 33 years old when he wrote this deceptively slight poem, a poem distinguished as much by the unsparing ironies of its unfolding implications as by the rigorous intelligence and disciplined artistry evident in its every line.
“How We Heard the Name” tells the story of a brief meeting between a soldier of a defeated army and a group of shepherds. Floating down the river past the watching shepherds, the soldier makes mocking jokes at his own expense and theirs, and offhandedly mentions the name of the victorious general responsible for his defeat, Alexander the Great.
Dugan examines the place of human beings in history, and the place of history in time. What he sees causes him simultaneously to smile and wince, for while he perceives a kind of cosmic joke in the actions and aspirations of human beings (including himself). It is a joke at the expense of readers, and himself, just as the drunken soldier of the poem sees the result of the Battle of Granicus, with all its bloodshed, as a joke between himself and Alexander.
In the poem, Dugan presents soldiers and shepherds. The first group are men of action, driven by ambition, who seek to leave an enduring mark on history. Alexander the Great is the archetypal man of this type, for he set out while in his twenties to conquer the world. By the time of his death at the age of 33, he had succeeded to a remarkable extent in doing just that. Indeed, there are a mere handful of names in all of history as or more widely known than that of Alexander (one of them, Jesus Christ, also died at the age of 33). The second group of men, to which the poem’s narrator belongs, are men of peaceful pursuits. They live humble lives, letting the events of history, set in motion by men of action, pass them by like the waters of a river or clouds in the sky.
Dugan finds little to choose between the drunken posturings of the soldier and the willful, even prideful, ignorance of the shepherds. Yet as a poet, he knows that he shares qualities with both.
Topics for Further Study
- Explain the difference between rhetorical line breaks and the use of enjambment. Illustrate using a different poem by Alan Dugan.
- Define the term “irony,” and give an example of its use in another of Dugan’s poems. Be sure to explain what makes your example ironic.
- Write a poem based on a famous historical event and narrated by an eyewitness to, or participant in, the event. Do not reveal the name of the event or the narrator anywhere in the poem.
- Prepare a report on the figure of Memnon, including his actions at the Battle of Granicus and his subsequent history. State whether or not you believe history has remembered him fairly, and why or why not.
Like the shepherd, he is a man of introspection and observation, marked by history, rather than marking it. Nevertheless, like the soldier, he seeks (albeit through poetry, rather than warfare) to leave a mark on history by creating a monument in words as enduring, if ultimately meaningless, as the reputation of Alexander the Great. For Dugan, the joke and the tragedy of existence is that no one, not the soldier, not the shepherd, not even a keen-eyed poet like himself who perceives the ironies of history, can escape from history, or irony.
“How We Heard the Name” is a rumination in and about time. Specifically, Dugan examines the place of human beings, and of the history they make, in time. To do this, he utilizes a common metaphor, equating time with a river. Normally, time is thought of (in another common metaphor) as proceeding like an arrow in a straight line from the past, through the present, and into the future. But Dugan sees time differently. He perceives it as circular in nature, or consisting of circular eddies and counter-currents. The circular structure of the first eight lines of the poem, a sentence beginning and ending with the words “the river,” is Dugan’s subtle way of alerting his readers to his unusual conception of time.
If time is circular, then whatever is carried downstream in its flow can come round again. In the poem, the river not only carries dead horses and dead men, as well as “military debris / Indicative of war / Or official acts upstream,” it also carries live, drunken men who shout their self-important words at whoever happens to be watching them go by. History, says Dugan, is “junk.” But that does n’t mean it can be ignored or escaped: certainly not by the soldier, swept along in time’s river; nor by the shepherds lining the riverbank, despite their belief that “it all / Goes by, that is the thing / About the river.”
Even though he is writing about events set in the distant past, Dugan is also writing about the present. Given the circularity of time, and the consequent repetitiveness of history, past and present are interchangeable, even identical. What seems a philosophical conceit is actually a practical truth for a man like Dugan, who fought in World War II to deny the ambitions of Nazi dictator Adolph Hitler, a man who saw himself as a modern-day Alexander. The attitude Dugan expresses toward humanity and the monuments it seeks to build to itself in time—the “junk” of war, history, and poetry—is marked by distance, irony, and resignation. The only solace Dugan provides his readers or himself is the beauty and order possible in language, in art. As Dugan said in an interview appearing in the fall, 1999 issue of Compost magazine, “Art is a very difficult thing. It doesn’t necessarily improve people or ruin people, it just is.” And for Dugan, it is all there is.
“How We Heard the Name” consists of 24 lines of varying length and meter. As such, it belongs to the type of poetry known as free verse, a poem written without any set meter or rhyme scheme. Written as prose, these 24 lines translate into 4 complete sentences. And indeed, there is something prosaic about the language of the poem. Yet this seeming artlessness is carefully and artfully contrived. As Dugan explained in Compost, “A poet is a person who makes an assemblage of words that don’t necessarily tell a story, but tries to transmit a powerful emotion verbally.”
If there is no set meter or rhyme scheme, what determines where Dugan breaks his lines? In free verse, line breaks can come at the logical end of a thought or sentence, as, for example, in line 14. This is known as a rhetorical line break. More common, however, in this poem and in free verse generally, is the use of enjambment, in which lines are broken in mid-thought or sentence so as to break the rhythm, unsettle the reader, and act against, or react in interesting and unexpected ways with, the sound or sense of the poem’s prevailing emotional thrust or logical argument. One example of enjambment occurs in lines 10-12: “He seemed drunk / And we asked him Why / Had he and this junk …” The word “Why” at the end of line 11 seems a natural stopping place, as if the narrator and his fellows are asking the soldier why he is drunk. But although the line breaks there, it does not end, and the reader is carried unexpectedly around the corner to what turns out to be a very different question—the question, in fact, on which the entire poem hinges. By using the technique of enjambment to vary the length, rhythm, and meaning of his lines, Dugan skillfully manipulates his readers’ experience of those lines and of the poem itself in his quest to “transmit a powerful emotion verbally.”
The effect of beginning and ending the first sentence of the poem (lines 1-8) with the words “the river” has already been discussed in detail. But that is by no means the only technique worth noting in that sentence. The second line, “dead horses, dead men,” echoes Lewis Carroll’s famous poem, “Humpty Dumpty.” The allusion is ironic, juxtaposing readers’ memories of a beloved rhyme from childhood with a scene of battlefield carnage. But the irony runs deeper still, for the events of “Humpty Dumpty” are not as innocent or childlike as readers may remember. That poem tells of a “great fall,” after which “all the king’s horses” and “all the king’s men” could not restore the shattered Humpty Dumpty to wholeness and life. The same is true in the aftermath of the Battle of Granicus, and after World War II as well, when not even the words of poets like Dugan can mend what has been broken.
Although the poem is written in free verse, it does contain some rhymes. The rhymes are clustered in lines 10-16: “by” and “Why”; “drunk” and “junk”; “us” and “Granicus.” They fall in the center of the poem, and are preceded and followed by unrhymed lines. Dugan uses these rhymes to inject a new element into his poem at the same time a new character, the soldier, appears. Just as the rhymes upset the established rhythms of the poem, so, too, does the arrival of the soldier upset the rhythms of the shepherds’ lives. Yet although the soldier continues speaking for the rest of the poem, the rhymes end at line 16. Dugan is suggesting that great events and personages of history, like the Battle of Granicus and Alexander should be seen as ephemera, neither more nor less meaningful than all the other, seemingly insignificant events surrounding them. In the Compost interview, Dugan speaks of his poems as a “meeting place between the unconscious, emotional flow of words and the conscious demand for an intelligent search for order in the universe. The two things being at war with each other. The war between the unconscious flow and the conscious desire, this is what makes the language of poetry.”
“How We Heard the Name” was written in 1956. Since Dugan served in the military during World War II, the shadow of that global conflict hangs over the poem. The poem is concerned with and impacted by events subsequent to the end of World War II, just as the poem is “about” events taking place after the Battle of Granicus.
The United States emerged from World War II in a position of strength. Indeed, the conclusion of the war marked the beginning of a period of unprecedented cultural, political, economic, and military expansion for the United States. The Soviet Union, too, emerged from the war as a great power. By 1956, with the Soviets in possession of the same nuclear capability as the Americans, it was clear that the two countries, with their competing systems of government, were the most powerful rivals in the world. Because the consequences of a direct conflict between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were too risky to be purposefully provoked, the two antagonists waged a different kind of war, one that became known to history as the Cold War.
During the Cold War the two superpowers battled each other indirectly, sometimes entering into combat themselves but never face to face. When Communist North Korea, viewed by the United States as a Soviet satellite, invaded South Korea in June 1950, for example, the U.S. responded by sending General Douglas MacArthur, one of the great generals of World War II, to beat back the invaders. A stalemate was assured when Communist China sent their massive army into the war on the side of the North Koreans. In 1956, Hungary, an Eastern European country that had fallen behind
Compare & Contrast
- 1956: Playing against the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Yankee Don Larsen pitches the first perfect game in World Series competition. The Yankees ultimately take the Series 4 games to 3 and become World Champions.
1958: The Brooklyn Dodgers break the hearts of thousands of fans by moving to Los Angeles.
2000: Larsen’s remains the only perfect game in World Series history. The Dodgers remain in Los Angeles. The Yankees are defending World Champions.
- 1956: Martin Luther King, Jr., is arrested in protests associated with the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
1968: Martin Luther King, Jr., is assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. James Earl Ray is arrested and convicted for the killing.
1988: James Earl Ray dies in prison after years of protesting his innocence in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Before his death, Dexter King, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s son, affirms his belief that Ray is innocent and that his father was murdered as part of a larger conspiracy.
- 323 B.C.: Alexander the Great dies in Babylon after drinking too much at a party. He is 33 years old.
1956: 33-year-old poet Alan Dugan writes “How We Heard the Name.”
2000: Forensic examination of a skeleton found in a tomb in Vergina, Greece, leads archeologists to conclude that the occupant is Alexander’s half-brother and successor, Philip III Arrhidaeus, raising the possibility that items discovered in the tomb once belonged to Alexander the Great.
the so-called Iron Curtain of Soviet influence following World War II, revolted against Soviet oppression. The United States, though sympathetic, could do nothing but watch and protest uselessly as Soviet tanks rolled in to crush the rebellion. A little more than a decade later, the same thing happened in Czechloslovakia. Similar scenarios were enacted in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and countless other hot spots around the world before the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s and early 1990s.
On the domestic front in 1956, the President of the United States was Dwight D. Eisenhower, a hero of World War II. Dugan surely had Eisenhower, the recent conflict in Korea (ended by cease fire in June 1953), and current events in Hungary very much in mind while writing “How We Heard the Name.” The quick expansion, and even quicker collapse, of Alexander’s empire serves as a warning to Americans and Soviets who see their historical situation as unique, and the ultimate victory of their cause as inevitable.
Despite the unusually enthusiastic critical response to Dugan’s first poetry collection, Poems (1961), critics have since been far more stinting, in their praise. Poet Robert Pinsky says of Dugan that he writes “with great comedy and sensitivity” about ordinary things. Most critics agree. X. J. Kennedy, for example, describes Dugan’s style as “a plain stodgy no-nonsense American prose, like that of your nearest bartender.” Critics are also united in identifying a fierce and unapologetically pessimistic sense of irony as the driving force of Dugan’s poetry. R. J. Mills writes that Dugan’s strongest poetic effects are achieved “through mockery, invective, sudden reversal, and exposure.” Other critics, such as Richard Ellman and Robert O’Clair, in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, point to Dugan’s lonely and idiosyncratic voice: “Alan Dugan is conspicuously unaffiliated—to other poets, to any affirmative creed, to life itself.”
Many critics, like Thomas McClanahan, praise the proud dignity and relentless honesty of Dugan’s work: “He faces the world precariously, unwilling to flatter his own ego at the expense of accurate description or truthful insight.” McClanahan goes on to observe, however, that “Dugan’s curious watching is at once his strength and his weakness as a poet.” A number of critics argue that this weakness outweighs his strength. J.D. McClatchy, reviewing Dugan’s New and Collected Poems in Poetry magazine, writes that “By his third book it was apparent, and by the fourth and fifth too obvious, that Dugan was plowing a very narrow field. It is not just that his misanthropic tone had hardened into a mannerism, but that it prevented access to larger, more complex areas of experience.” McClatchy goes on to characterize Dugan as “another burnt-out case.”
Dugan’s work has fervent partisans and detractors, but his poetry is recognized by both as being at the fringes of the contemporary scene. This is not necessarily a valid judgment of the ultimate worth of his poetry, however. As McClanahan states, “Given the quality of his writing and the dearth of comment upon it, it is not wholly unrealistic to predict that Dugan might well become one of those enigmatic poets in American literature who is never really heard until he has stopped speaking.” Dugan himself would surely appreciate the irony of that.
Paul Witcover is a novelist and editor in New York City with an M.A. in Creative Writing and Literature from the City University of New York. In the following essay, he discusses the use of irony and allusion in Alan Dugan’s poem, “How We Heard the Name.”
In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Thomas McClanahan says of the poet Alan Dugan, “If he can be said to write from any one vantage point, it is that of objective alienation, a perspective that allows him to stand apart from situations and comment like an old man who has seen and heard it all.” This quality of objective alienation, which might also be called ironic detachment, is the predominant tone of Dugan’s early poem, “How We Heard the Name,” written in 1956, when the poet was thirty-three. It is somewhat counter-intuitive
that a poem as rigorously objective and emotionally reserved as this one can nevertheless speak to readers in a moving and personal way. Yet such is the case.
The title of the poem, “How We Heard the Name,” promises readers an account of an event or series of events. Its tone is colloquial, as if the story, whatever it may be, is about to be related over a glass of beer at a local bar. Like all good storytellers, the nameless narrator of this poem—who speaks not just for himself but on behalf of a group of people, hence the “we”—is very much aware of the expectations of his audience. Storytelling, after all, is a kind of public performance, as is poetry, for that matter. Recall that the earliest epic poetry, like that of Homer, was an art of the spoken and chanted word. Although written on the page, this is a poem readers are to imagine being spoken by a fictional character who is relating certain events to a fictional audience. Robert Browning and, more recently, Robert Frost, were masters of this type of poem, which falls into the category of dramatic poetry.
Imagine, then, that this poem, this story, is being told in a tavern (the precise identity of the setting,
“As will become apparent, in this poem irony itself is riven by splits, giving rise to a kind of double or even triple irony that must have been both dizzying and exhilarating to readers in 1956.”.
as well as of the narrator and the audience, is not that important, although the poem ultimately does provide some of this information). Whoever the audience is, they already know the name to which the title refers. If they did not, it is likely that the narrator would mention the name in prefacing the story. Why is this important? Because it introduces right from the outset a split between the world of the poem and the world of the reader. Of course this split is always there, in every poem. Some poets labor mightily to disguise it; others brazenly call attention to it. Dugan does neither. He creates a world and steps aside, or seems to, letting his readers find their own way into it and through it even at the risk of losing their way. Yet while seemingly absent from the poem, Dugan is actually very much present, giving his readers clues to help them along, if only they have the wit to recognize them. Poetry of this sort demands a reader’s full attention and intelligence.
At first glance such poems may seem to reflect a degree of contempt on the part of the poet for his readers, and with some poets that is doubtless the case. But if Dugan’s poetry is difficult, it is not to trumpet his superiority; on the contrary, he is simply paying his readers the compliment of assuming they are at least as intelligent and insightful as he is. Which may or may not be true, but it’s nice to get the benefit of the doubt! Here Dugan gently teases his readers with two riddles: who are the “we,” and what is “the name” they hear? Again, these riddles are not present within the context of the poem itself, the fictional world of the narrator and his audience; they are only apparent to those who approach the poem from outside, seeking to gain entrance.
The language of the poem, like that of its title, is of the everyday sort. Yet as the reader progresses line by line, it becomes clear that something relatively unusual is being talked about. “The river brought down / Dead horses, dead men / And military debris, / Indicative of war / Or official acts upstream.” The disjunction between the subject of this first sentence—which meanders through eight lines very much like the river that is its literal beginning and end—and the language employed therein, constitutes a second split, adding to the effect of the split referred to above between the respective worlds of the poem and its readers, as well as between the poet, the narrator, and their respective audiences. Indeed, the poem, despite its apparently smooth and seamless surface, is shot through with cracks and splits of all kinds: of identity, of time, of structure and rhythm.
They are present not because Dugan is a sloppy writer. On the contrary, it’s through the purposeful and artful manipulation of such fissures that Dugan gives his poem its pervasive and quietly devastating tone of irony. Babette Deutsch, in her indispensable Poetry Handbook: A Dictionary of Terms, defines irony as “a statement that contradicts the actual attitude of the speaker or a situation that contrasts what is expected with what occurs and always having overtones of mockery.” The phrase “official acts,” for example, used by the narrator as a euphemism for war, is ironic (it also reveals something about the narrator that he would choose to employ such a phrase). As will become apparent, in this poem irony itself is riven by splits, giving rise to a kind of double or even triple irony that must have been both dizzying and exhilarating to readers in 1956. It is less so now, after nearly half a century. In fact, some postmodern literary critics and philosophers, such as Jean-Francois Lyotard, would argue that this sense of multiply nested ironies, like the overlapping windows of a computer screen, has come to characterize all aspects of contemporary culture.
The overt subject of the poem, then, is a war; or, more specifically, the aftermath of a battle. To paraphrase, the narrator (and his fellows) are standing along the bank of a river and watching detritus suggestive of a clash of armies being carried downstream. Among this detritus, finally, is a soldier clinging to a log. The narrator asks him why “Had he and this junk / Come down to us so / From the past upstream.” Note how Dugan establishes an almost drowsy rhythm by the measured repetition of words (in line 2, “Dead horses, dead men,” with its eerie echo of Lewis Carroll’s “Humpty Dumpty”) and phrases (“the river” begins and ends the first sentence of the poem). Another example is to be found in lines 6 and 7: “But it went by, it all / Goes by” echoes a final time in line 10, then suddenly, unexpectedly, breaks that rhythm by the introduction of rhymes—“junk” and “drunk,” “by” and “Why,” “us” and “Granicus.” He does this to underscore the importance of the soldier: just as the rhythm of the poem is jarringly broken by the use of rhyme, so, too, will the rhythm of the narrator’s life, and the lives of those he speaks for, be broken by the soldier’s arrival, which heralds the arrival of another.
To appreciate this aspect of the poem, it is necessary to know a little history. The soldier refers to the Battle of Granicus. In 334 B.C., the armies of Alexander the Great attacked and defeated the Persian forces on the plains of Adrasteia after fording the river Granicus. The soldier relates that the battle “Has just been won / By all the Greeks except / The Lacedaemonians and / Myself.” Alexander’s armies were drawn from all the city-states of Greece, with one exception—the Lacedaemonians. The Lacedaemonians, better known as the Spartans, refused to fight under any but a Spartan general. In truth, their refusal was politically rather than militarily motivated; the Spartans feared (quite rightly) the loss of their independence in Alexander’s empire. But who is this mysterious, self-important soldier who states that the battle has been won by all the Greeks except the Spartans and himself, and goes on to explain, “This is a joke / Between me and a man / Named Alexander.” Surely, no common soldier would speak with such bitterness and intimacy of the great Alexander. The fiercest fighting in the Battle of Granicus was between Alexander’s men and Greek mercenary troops in the pay of the Persians. The mercenaries were led by a Greek general named Memnon. History records that Memnon escaped the slaughter of his mercenaries that ended the battle; thus, readers may reasonably conclude that the nameless soldier is none other than General Memnon himself, in the act of fleeing the vengeance of Alexander in a rather undignified fashion. Alexander, then, is “the name” referred to in the title of the poem.
But what about the “we”? That riddle, too, is soon solved. Memnon scornfully refers to his audience as “ba-bas.” This is an example of the poetic device known as onomatopoeia: that is, the use of a word whose meaning is indicated by its sound, which replicates the sound of the thing it represents.
What Do I Read Next?
- Dugan’s New [and] Collected Poems, 1961–1983, published in 1985, is an indispensable resource for anyone interested in Dugan’s development as a poet.
- Readers interested in Alexander the Great will find Robin Lane Fox’s 1994 biography, Alexander the Great, an engrossing read, almost more like a novel than a history book.
- A classic study of Alexander from a military standpoint is J.F.C. Fuller’s The Generalship of Alexander the Great, reissued in 1989. The author’s account of the Battle of Granicus is especially well done.
- An amusing and moving interview conducted by J.C. Ellefson and Belle Waring with Dugan appeared in the May 1990 issue of the American Poetry Review
Here, “ba-ba” suggests the bleating of sheep. Memnon is addressing a group of shepherds. They become the targets of the bitterness and contempt he feels both toward himself, as a defeated general who has abandoned his men, and toward Alexander, the victor and would-be god. And in fact, just as Memnon predicts, Alexander declared himself to be divine soon after the Battle of Granicus, though this self-proclaimed apotheosis did not prevent his death just over ten years later, in 323 B.C. It is worth noting that Alexander was thirty-three years old when he died, the same age as Dugan when he wrote this poem.
Memnon’s attitude to the shepherds is plainly one of superiority. Even though he has been defeated by Alexander, Memnon is still better than those lining the river and watching him drift by. Memnon is a man of action, used to being at the center of things, possessing knowledge that, he believes, will forever change the world of the shepherds. Even as Memnon disparages Alexander, he takes pains to assert his closeness to the would-be god, as though he, too, is a god.
But is he correct in this attitude? The shepherds are not quite as unsophisticated as Memnon believes. This fact is revealed in the first sentence of the poem, when the narrator uses the ironic phrase “official acts” as a euphemism for war. Far from being naive or stupid, these shepherds possess a wisdom that comes of long experience with the “official acts” of men such as Alexander and Memnon. The shepherds are like the river itself, timeless and enduring: “it all / Goes by, that is the thing / About the river.” Would-be gods and conquerors are ephemeral events in the lives of these men. Alexander’s invasion may temporarily upset the flow of their lives, just as the detritus of war upsets the flow of the river, but this effect is not likely to be a permanent one. Dugan had introduced rhymes to show how the soldier’s arrival broke the rhythm of the river and the lives of the shepherds. Those rhymes do not continue through the remainder of the poem. On the contrary, they disappear almost at once, like the ripples of a stone tossed into a stream will spread out for a while only to vanish as if they had never existed at all.
The narrator speaks for more than just the shepherds, however. Note that he does not ask Memnon why he has come floating down from upstream. Instead, he asks, “Why / Had he and this junk / Come down to us so / From the past upstream.” That is a curious phrase, “the past upstream.” Many poets have likened the flow of a river to the flow of time, and Dugan is availing himself of this common metaphor. In a sense, it is literally true, for the events that have taken place upstream have happened in the immediate past of the shepherds. But Dugan is also talking about the way in which the past flows down through time to influence the present and the future. Even more specifically, he is talking about how Alexander the Great set out to conquer the world and wound up dead at the age of thirty-three.
Dugan, himself thirty-three, is reminding himself (and his readers) of the perils of vanity. One of the intentional ironies here is that simply by writing his poem, Dugan sets himself apart from the shepherds and aligns himself with Alexander. A poem is, in a sense, like a monument erected to withstand the ravages of time, and few figures from ancient history were more determined to raise enduring monuments to themselves than Alexander the Great.
Source: Paul Witcover, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.
Erica Smith is a writer and editor. In the following essay Smith examines the poem’s depiction of warfare and the idea of individual conscience.
Alan Dugan’s poem “How We Heard the Name,” from his volume Poems (1961), begins with a startling image: “The river brought down / Dead horses, dead men / And military debris.” In these few terse lines the speaker has successfully situated himself in a precise place (near a river) and moment (after some kind of battle or other military event). Furthermore, the allusion to dead horses suggests that the poem takes place sometime in the past, when mounted soldiers were common in warfare.
In the next lines the speaker offers an interpretation of what he sees: that the debris is “Indicative of war / Or official acts upstream.” Although he is witnessing horrific sights, including decaying carcasses, the speaker does not display great emotion regarding this apparent destruction. Instead, he keeps a detached and ironic tone, drolly wondering about “official acts”—presumably of those in government. He seems cynical regarding the actions of those in power. The reader is left to wonder whether the speaker sees himself as impacted by, or accountable to, those who govern him.
The speaker’s subsequent comments summarize his feelings regarding the ravages he sees. His mood is more of resignation than of pure indifference: “But it all went by, it all / Goes by, that is the thing / About the river.” The speaker’s concerns seem to be cosmic, rather than mundane. He is suggesting that whatever comes to pass, no matter how catastrophic, is ultimately impermanent. The river takes on a greater meaning, too: it stands for the passage of time. A river, like time, is always moving. A river has literally washed away the remnants of a battle, and over time the emotional impact of the battle will diminish. The speaker’s intuitive knowledge that all things are fleeting can be seen as a sign of maturity and insight. It may also indicate hardship, for these sights of death are not considered unusual by the speaker.
The action of the poem moves on when the speaker notices a soldier drifting down the river on a log. For the first time in the body of the poem the speaker suggests that there are companions with him, citing “we”: “we asked him Why / Had he and this junk / Come down to us so / From the past upstream.” The soldier, like the speaker, is in the midst of the wreckage of war. Yet he too seems unaffected. In fact, he is so nonchalant the speaker wonders if the soldier is drunk. Despite these circumstances, the soldier offers a cogent reply:
“Friends,” he said, “the great
Battle of Granicus
Has just been won
By all of 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.”
This section of the poem firmly plants it within a specific historical period. The reference to Alexander is of Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.), son of Philip, King of Macedon and conqueror of the civilized world. After his father’s assassination in 336 B.C., Alexander ascended the throne while suppressing his rivals in Greece and razing the city of Thebes. Then, setting out from Ilium (formerly Troy)—a choice deliberately made as a romantic nod to the Homeric epic—Alexander began a campaign to conquer the Mediterranean front of the Persian Empire. By his death in 323 B.C., Alexander had succeeded in conquering land as far east as India. He also founded several towns, most notably the city of Alexandria. Alexander is credited with extending Greek civilization to the East, and his reign is considered to have ushered in the Hellenistic Age of territorial kingdoms.
The soldier’s reference to the Battle of Granicus identifies the first battle (334 B.C.) in Alexander’s Persian campaign. At the time he crossed the Dardanelles, Alexander commanded about 30,000 foot soldiers and over 5,000 cavalry, of whom nearly 14,000 were Macedonians and about 7,000 Greek allies. At the Granicus (modern Kocabas) River Alexander encountered Persian troops, and after nearly falling prey to the Persian attempt to lure him across the river and kill him, Alexander was victorious. However, the battle resulted in a slaughter of Greek mercenaries and an incarceration of 2,000 other soldiers who were then returned to Macedonia.
It is likely that, making reference to the battle being a victory for “all of the Greeks except the Lacedaemonians and myself,” the soldier is referring to this massacre of Greeks. The soldier does not elaborate on the circumstances; however, he presents himself as being in a private joke with Alexander and that the fate of others hung in the balance. Consequently the reader is led wonder if the soldier is Darius, leader of the mercenaries.
“A river, like time, is always moving. A river has literally washed away the remnants of a battle, and over time the emotional impact of the battle will diminish.”
This interpretation would explain the soldier’s wry attitude regarding Alexander, especially as Alexander would continue to pursue his Persian campaign. After prevailing at Granicus Alexander was greeted with open arms by many cities, and tyrants were thrown out and replaced by democracies. As a result Alexander’s fame and legend continued to grow.
Further illustrating his wry attitude, the soldier calls the speaker and his companions “ba-bas”, implying that they are somehow naive (even the sound “ba-bas” echoes the sound made by a sheep, and by extension suggests the “sheep mentality“of conformity). It is already expected that Alexander’s fame will spread, that he will be described as godlike, and will be revered by the masses: but the soldier knows the more complicated realities of war.
In the context of the speaker, the assumptions of the soldier cannot go unchallenged. The soldier’s view of the speaker may be that of a naive man in the countryside. Yet the speaker has already proven himself to be skeptical. He is decidedly unimpressed by the “official acts” of those in power. The speaker is more likely to share the soldier’s sardonic view of Alexander’s victories, and probably would not revere Alexander as others would. Even the title of the poem, “How We Heard the Name” has a detached quality to it, for Alexander is not even cited directly; his is just a name like any other. However, the mention of “the name” also has a larger-than-life, even foreboding, quality to it.
The reader is left to wonder how the speaker did, in fact, come to know “the name” and what it meant to him. More likely than not, the speaker’s life was altered irrevocably by being absorbed into Alexander’s growing empire. Therefore, the speaker would have been directly affected by the
“The poem takes its most stinging shot at the historical hero in the last two lines, which tell that those ignorant enough to believe the heroic tales of embellished history are little more than fools, or ‘babas.’”
outcomes of the battle despite his seeming indifference to it.
A reader can also shed light on “How We Heard the Name” by considering it in light of Dugan’s body of work. Specifically, critics have noted that it is characteristic for Dugan to comment on of society using restrained language and wry humor. In this instance, he filters a historical event through the voice of a speaker who is indeed unsentimental, who looks warily upon the “official acts” of government. Compounding the matter, the speaker then encounters one who is downright embittered, the soldier who presents himself to the speaker not quite straightforwardly, but rather through a riddle (“this is a joke / Between me and a man / Named Alexander”). Moreover, the reader is witnessing a historical event unfold from the outside in, a kind of reversal typical in Dugan’s poetry.
“How We Heard the Name” is also quite possibly a commentary on certain events of the twentieth century. One could imagine a similar situation unfolding, for example, in China under Mao, the Soviet Union under Stalin, or quite possibly in an earlier America. Those who inhabit remote regions are on the fringe of the great social upheavals, and do not necessarily ask for them, yet feel their impact nonetheless. It is dubious that the speaker in “How We Heard the Name” was craving to be absorbed by Alexander’s empire. However, the events of history go by as the river does. As the speaker declares “that is the thing about the river,” the reader could imagine that through this poem Dugan is making a similar statement.
Source: Erica Smith, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.
Pamela Steed Hill
Pamela Steed Hill has had poems published in over 100 journals and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize three times. Her first collection, In Praise of Motels, was published in 1999 by Blair Mountain Press. She is an associate editor for University Communications at Ohio State University. In this essay, Hill discusses how “How We Heard the Name” uses allusions to Alexander the Great to warn against the human tendency to make heroes of battle leaders and to force readers to look at the evils of war, no matter how glorious history has made it out to be.
Dugan’s first collection, Poems, contains several works in which war plays a major role, including “How We Heard the Name.” Dugan spent World War II in the Army Air Corps, and that experience inspired much of his early poetry’s themes, especially the notion of humankind’s blind acceptance of the evils of battle. As in most of his work, the characters in “How We Heard the Name” are fairly flat, and the language is conversational and unadorned. Lacking the flash of unusual imagery and explicit descriptions, though, does not lessen the poignancy of this poem. Instead, its strength lies in the searing sarcasm that Dugan employs to take a shot at one of history’s most renowned heroes: Alexander the Great. However, it isn’t just the ancient warrior and leader himself that comes under the poet’s critical tongue, but all those who have made a “god” of him and who only perpetuate evilness by remaining ignorant of its human source. “How We Heard the Name” is essentially an extended metaphor that is both cautionary and chastising: it warns that people should give second thought to whom they call “great.”
To fully appreciate the poem, it is necessary to understand its historical references. The Battle of Granicus, fought in May 334 B.C., was Alexander the Great’s first of four major battles he would fight and win in his military career. It was also the one in which he came closest to failure and death. Alexander ascended to the throne of Macedonia, in Greece, at the age of twenty, after the death of his father, King Philip II. Being schooled in the ways of military tactics since he was a young boy, he quickly proved himself a fierce and capable leader going into battle. This was most evident when he led his troops across the Granicus River in Asia Minor and surprised the Persians who had expected the Macedonians to take a different route. Although Alexander came close to losing his head, literally, in a tangle with the Persian military leaders, he was victorious in the end, opening the way for further advances into Asia Minor. Alexander the Great became noted for his remarkable insights into fighting a battle, including anticipating his enemies’ moves, having a keen sense of timing, and coordinating heavy infantry, heavy cavalry, light infantry, and light cavalry in a single attack.
“Lacedaemonians” is another name for the Spartans of ancient Greece. The city-state of Sparta became very powerful and its men were known for their military prowess. For years, Sparta ruled Greece, but it was eventually defeated by the city-state of Macedonia, leading the way for Alexander the Great’s father to become king. This, of course, led the way for Alexander himself.
With this brief rundown of historical events, Dugan’s “How We Heard the Name” is more accessible, but perhaps still partly ambiguous. The first few lines are clear enough, describing “military debris,” including dead horses and dead soldiers, floating down a river. We are not sure who is standing along the bank watching this grisly parade, but the persona is a plural “we” and, whoever they are, they know that the scene is “indicative of war.” But Dugan throws in what may be considered a touch of sarcasm by adding “or official acts.” Often, the true horror of war is disguised in euphemisms, such as “official acts” or “conflict.” One of the most recent examples of this practice that caused outrage among many Americans was the refusal by some government and military officials to acknowledge that a “war” was going on in Vietnam. Because war had not been officially declared, some people called it the conflict in Vietnam. While Dugan’s personal experience was with World War II—a war that many find more justified than others—he was still confronted with the atrocities of violence and bloodshed and, likely, some questionable actions by his own leaders. And while bad memories may remain with people throughout their lives, they may seek a little comfort in knowing “it all goes by” in spite of recollections. Lines 6 and 7 in “How We Heard the Name” can be taken both literally and figuratively. The words “but it all went by” refers to the debris floating on downstream out of sight of those watching, but in adding “it all / goes by,” Dugan means that time passes and all the events of our lives pass with it, even monumental events such as war.
The occurrence of the “soldier on a log” drifting by is a bit ambiguous, in that the reader is not sure whether he represents a certain historical military man or is more of an everyman figure representing the task of carrying out the orders that others have created. Regardless of the specific reference, the presence of the soldier allows an opportunity for a voice from the past to make a connection with the present—a present not unlike ancient times, with wars, conflicts, and official acts. In the conversation with the soldier, who “seemed drunk,” the reader learns that he has transcended centuries on the river, having started out some 300 years before the birth of Christ. When asked why he and the military “junk” had made such a long journey, he reveals that he has just come from fighting in the Battle of the Granicus. His answer implies that he was on the losing side (the war was won by “all of the Greeks except / The Lacedaemonians and / Myself”) and is, therefore, a Persian. But since his actual identity is not disclosed, this is only an assumption, and one based on logic. Logic of course, is not a necessary component of good poetry, so it can be speculated that the soldier could be a disgruntled Macedonian who fought on Alexander the Great’s side. In making his statement, he claims it is a “joke” between him and Alexander, but it is a joke full of cynicism and mockery, not humor and good will.
Why would the soldier claim that all but a part of the nation of Greece was a winner in this war; why not all of Greece? To answer this it is helpful to recall that Lacedaemonia (Sparta) once ruled the entire area and was proud of its military and political power. The Spartan glory days, however, ended when the Greek state of Macedonia challenged and defeated the Lacedaemonians, paving the way for Alexander the Great’s father to take over.
The poems takes its most stinging shot at the historical hero in the last two lines, which tell that those ignorant enough to believe the heroic tales of embellished history are little more than fools, or “ba-bas.” In reality, Alexander came close to losing both the Battle of the Granicus and his life, and yet he came out of it politically and socially unscathed. No one recalled the near-deadly mishaps, for only the good things made good stories. And while it is true that Alexander would go on to earn his moniker “the Great” by continuing to score unlikely victories, even when his army was outnumbered, it is also true that he did so at the cost of much human life. And there lies the point of “How We Heard the Name.”
As a veteran of World War II, Dugan knows not only the names but the deeds and stories that surround the actions of heroes. He also knows that battle victories and medals of honor are not all that heroes share in common, but that a trail of bloodshed and devastation also follows each one. In selecting the historical lauding of Alexander the Great as an example of the world’s human source of evilness, the poet attempts to showcase the epitome of heroism-gone-bad. The poem states that the greater the battle stories—and, therefore, the greater the number of casualties—the more likely the winner will become known as a “god.” But something is wrong, Dugan warns, with glossing over the loss of life that occurs in wars in favor of tales of glory and heroic acts. It is not the warriors themselves who are the source of wrongness; they are, rather, a product of the real problem. And that real problem is the unexplainable, pervasive force of human nature that glorifies war and perpetuates its existence.
Source: Pamela Steed Hill, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.
Birkerts, Sven, “But Does It Rhyme?,” in Washington Post, August 2, 1998.
Deutsch, Babette, Poetry Handbook: A Dictionary of Terms: Fourth Edition, Harper Perennial, 1974.
Ellman, Richard, and Robert O’Clair, eds., The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry: 2nd Edition, W. W. Norton, 1988, pp. 1089-1090.
McClanahan, Thomas, Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, First Series, Gale, 1980.
“The Poetry of Things: An Interview with Alan Dugan,” in Compost, Fall, 1999, pp. 42-45.
Bradley, George, ed., The Yale Younger Poets Anthology, Yale University Press, 1998.
This collection gives some comparative sense of the distinctiveness of Dugan’s poetry when it first appeared by placing it in the context of the work of other Yale Younger Poets, such as George Starbuck and Adrienne Rich.
Forche, Carolyn, ed., Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, W. W. Norton, 1993.
Dugan’s poetry is collected along with the work of others, all of it wrestling with the obligations of poets to bear witness to the darkest truths of history.
Howard, Richard, Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States since 1950, Atheneum, 1969, pp. 99-106.
A helpful start in placing Dugan’s early work in a historic and poetic contextt.
Stepanchev, Stephen, American Poetry since 1945, Harper, 1965.
Another useful guide to placing Dugan’s early work in its historic and poetic context, but its tone, and its judgments, may seem dated to contemporary students.