Typically called a Black Mountain poet, Edward Dorn commented that there is no Black Mountain “school” with a single style or ideology, but that instead Black Mountain College meant a “school” in the true sense of the word, a climate in which to acquire and satisfy a thirst for the “dazzle of learning” and an appreciation of its value.
Referring to the poetry of the much-revered Charles Olson, Dorn claimed that he was not sure what “breath-determined projective verse” was; he simply wrote in “clots” of words, and when a line began to lose its energy, he began a new one. This intuitional line division leads to free verse, which utilizes some end-rhyme and, more often, internal rhyme. Dorn’s long narrative poems (Idaho Out and Gunslinger) have the structure of an odyssey punctuated by stops and encounters.
Dorn’s major themes can be pinpointed by naming certain representative figures in his work. The eccentric entrepreneur and film mogul Howard Hughes represents all that is wrong with today’s world, from isolation to selfishness to unbounded competitiveness. Daniel Drew, the robber baron, is the prototype of earlier American acquisitiveness. Dick Tracy, the comic-strip detective, is a pop figure familiar to all. Parsifal is not only the ideal knight, symbolic of the unrecoverable past in the mistaken view of most Americans, but also a part of the mythology ever-present in Dorn’s poetry. Composer John Philip Sousa, associated with a period of history that seems in retrospect more pleasing than the present, elicits both a love for music and an almost sentimental reminiscence about an Illinois childhood. There remains the geranium, the lovely scarlet bloom that flourishes in the West and represents in Dorn’s poetry the feminine Indian principle, and the trees—the box elder of his youth and the piñon of his adult years.
Heeding the advice of Olson, his mentor at Black Mountain College, to “dig one thing or place” until he knew more about it than anyone else, Dorn chose the American West. That vast area became the locus and the vehicle for Dorn’s major concerns: displaced persons and minorities, greedy entrepreneurs, ecology, the role of the poet, and, most important, survival. Believing that the United States government created its own first subdivisions with the passage of the Homestead Act, he noted that after a century of “planned greed,” what remains are cowboys who live in ranch houses and pull plastic boats behind their highly horse-powered wagons. If a cowboy actually owns a horse, he does not ride it. Although Dorn generally loved this new world, he sometimes found it so evil that he thought it should not even have been discovered. Major villains are the “real-estate agents,” who have converted “SPACE” to space by subdividing it, while the victims are the immigrants who came in “long black flea coats,” Indians who now “play indian and scoff wieners and Seven Up,” and the land itself.
Although most ordinary citizens are relatively impotent in the face of money, acquisition, and imperialism, Dorn believed that the poet has the potential to alter perception and thought, to be, in Olson’s phrase, “of the company of the gods.” Art aids in humankind’s survival. In the poem “Sousa,” Dorn suggested that Sousa’s music is an antidote to the crash course on which the world has embarked, and even a means of figuratively irrigating the wasteland. In a Dylan Thomas-like phrase, he recalled “the only May Day of [his] mind,” the octagonal bandstand, the girls’ billowing summer dresses, and ladybugs—all associated with Sunday afternoon occasions. Pleading with “John” (Philip Sousa) to pick up his “phone,” Dorn deplores the fact that the nation, which has lifted the “chalice of explosion,” can no longer be amused by Sousa’s martial music. Noting that Sousa’s marches are benevolent—the kind in which no one is injured—the poet concludes the poem with a brief prayer that the friends he has loved and left will have “cut wood to warm them.”
“The Rick of Green Wood”
Wood is significant in Dorn’s work, not only because it can literally warm bodies, but also because it is one of the natural objects to be lost in the despoliation of the West, and because Dorn himself worked as a logger. The box elder tree, associated with his youth in Illinois, and the piñon tree of the West and his adult life, appear frequently in the poems. “The Rick of Green Wood,” which appears at the beginning of both The Collected Poems, 1956-1974 and Selected Poems, serves to introduce not only the theme of wood and the comfort it will offer his family but also the poet himself: “My name is Dorn,” he tells the woodcutter as the two converse in the November air. The friendly atmosphere is chilled by the warning that “the world is getting colder”—colder because of a lack of communication between its people and because of a depletion of its resources. Like Robert Frost’s invitation to see the newborn calf and clear the pasture spring, and Emily Dickinson’s “Letter to the World,” Dorn’s “The Rick of Green Wood” invites the reader to participate in the poet’s world and to read on to learn more about the woodyard and the West beyond it.
As Frost, Pound, and T. S. Eliot did before him, Dorn observed his homeland from England for a time; in all fairness, he admitted that the United States is “no more culpable” than England, and he finally decided that what happens in Minnesota was really more his business than what happens in England. Dorn took himself back home, but not before advising two jaded English poets who think that everything has already been said that they should make something up, “get laid” and describe that experience, or see what hope they can offer the world.
In the West once more, Dorn parodied the “Home on the Range,” where Sacagawea wears a baseball cap and eats a Clark bar, and cowboys are good old boys who ride in trucks with gun racks. Concerned as always with the fate of men living in the United States and on the North American continent, Dorn offered suggestions: Ignore the rigid patterns of society; the person who is different may be the one worth listening to.
In his introduction to The Lost America of Love: Rereading Robert Creeley, Edward Dorn, and Robert Duncan (1981), Sherman Paul declares that his book concerns, much more than he had expected, the relationship of these poets to their “beloved predecessor,” Walt Whitman. Dorn had affinities with the Transcendentalists, with Henry David Thoreau (in spite of the fact that he refers to Thoreau as a “god damn sniveler”) and his conception of the “different drummer,” his attitude toward civil disobedience, and his love for land and nature; and with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who claimed to be “an endless seeker—with no past at my back.” Dorn was closest, however, to Whitman. His poem “Wait by the Door Awhile, Death, There Are Others” recalls by its title and subject Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and contains several Whitmanesque references to his body, which Dorn said is younger than he is. Inviting himself to enter himself, Dorn confessed that he does so with...
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