Dorn, Ed(ward) 1929–
Dorn is an American poet, short story writer, critic, novelist, essayist, and editor. He was a student at Black Mountain College and his work shows the influence of Charles Olson and the techniques of projectivist verse. Lyrical and loosely structured, Dorn's poetry often explores patterns of American life: in particular, the frontier, the culture of the American West, the primitivism of the Indians. Considered in many ways political, his writing varies from the allegorical and humorous to the philosophically complex.
Edward Dorn is one of the two or three best American poets now writing….
Dorn is very much an American poet, and he has created a distinctively American idiom…. [Gunslinger is] a specifically American work, using a dissonance which jars the European ear and a melodramatic virility which used to be characteristic of "the frontier" myth. The poems [in The Collected Poems, 1956–1974] show this language in the making; the earliest in the book are placed within that blank landscape, and within some long, emphatic lines which go right back to Whitman…. But Dorn sometimes makes his points too well:
In America every art has to reach toward some clarity. That is our hope from the start.
English poets have also practised clarity, with varying degrees of success, for some centuries now; in fact, it is a general mistake of American writers to confuse clarity with sincerity. As Dorn puts it:
It is a real mystique, not a
mystique. A mystique of the real.
Statements like this, which have nothing very much to do with his achieved poetry, have often led to Dorn being confused with such poets as Robert Creeley or Gary Snyder; they also believed in "the real" but for them it was all mixed up with a tacky orientalism and a wheedling, hysterical adolescence. Clap your hands if you still believe in Allen Ginsberg.
From the start, Dorn had too firm an ear and too clear a vision to...
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Like his shape-shifting protagonist Gunslinger, that archetypal hero of the Wild West who also happens to be a Greek Sun God and a sophisticated New Philosopher expounding on Heidegger …, Edward Dorn has been unrolling the map of locations for some 20 years now, and the publication of [The Collected Poems: 1956–1974 and Slinger] should finally earn Dorn the reputation he deserves as one of a handful of important poets writing in America today.
If Dorn has never been widely known …, the reasons are not hard to find. Dorn began his career at Black Mountain College in the shadow of Charles Olson, his acknowledged master….
Yet despite such thematic links, Dorn is really quite unlike Olson; he is, for that matter, quite unlike any poet writing today. To call him a "regional poet" (he refers to himself as "a poet of the West—not by nativity but by orientation"), misses the mark, for his central concerns are metaphysical and have, finally, nothing to do with his chosen region, the American West…. [Despite] his use of drug-world argot and political invective, his poetry is decidedly more tempered, more detached, more humorous than that of, say, Allen Ginsberg. Finally, and most important, Dorn, as he himself insists, is a narrative poet—an unusual condition today when the norm tends to be the fragmented lyric or open-ended sequence. (p. 22)
"The Rick of Green Wood" (1956), which opens The Collected Poems, contains most of Dorn's typical stylistic traits. It begins:
In the woodyard were green and dry
woods fanning out, behind
a valley below
a pleasure for the eye to go.
Woodpile by the buzzsaw. I heard
the woodsman down in the thicket. I don't
want a rick of green wood, I told him
I want cherry or alder or something strong
and thin, or thick if dry, but I don't
want the green wood, my wife would die
Her back is slender
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Dorn, who notes that his work is "theoretical in nature," is vehemently not in search of the well-crafted poem, though his best work [in "The Collected Poems: 1956–1974"] needs no avant-garde disclaimers to support it. (pp. 32, 34)
Despite his esthetic caveat, Dorn is best when most focused, and the zeroing in comes when he speaks clearly of what is directly in front of him, either in memory or in landscape. His longer works like "Idaho Out" blur with rhetoric when the poet begins philosophizing, and sharpen instantaneously when he moves us with the portrait of a woman in a bar:
So there you are. She is
as ripe and bursting as that
She bleeds spore in her
undetachable black pants
and, not to make it seem too good
or too unlikely near
she has that
kind of generous smile
offset by a daring and hostile look….
Dorn's shorter poems retain this clarity, particularly those lyrics he has chosen to group throughout the book under the rubric of "Song."
With Dorn's move to England in the mid-60's, his work for a time grew overtly political, that is, preachy…. His (perhaps temporary) need to slam his reader over the head with politics is unfortunate, for all of Dorn's work is inherently political, needing no soapbox….
Dorn's poetic strength has rested not on the "dazzle of learning" he admits to loving but on his capacity to feel with language the lives and the life of the land he knows best…. When in "Like a Message on Sunday" he speaks of his town's "forlorn plumber" and the man's daughter, and bids that "their failure be kindly, and come in small unnoticeable pieces," he touches the world that all of us can feel. (p. 34)
Bill Zavatsky, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 17, 1976.
Dorn writes in his Preface (1974) to the Collected Poems that for him the work is ratiocinative, not bardic: "From near the beginning I have known my work to be theoretical in nature and poetic by virtue of its inherent tone."… [This] affiliates Dorn, in this regard only, with more recent figures such as Stevens and Ammons, with Olson of course, and with the open-field poetry which represents in its sequences of syllables and perceptions the act of the mind. Both in theory and in tone, particularly in the managing of transitions, the drive of thought in an extended meditation like "The Land Below," the declarative qualities are Wordsworthian…. [As] a writer whose work is theoretical in nature he wants us to respond to the cogency, precision of detail, and political credibility of his account of American reality. (pp. 142-43)
The end-and-cover maps on some of Dorns's books are symptoms of the need to make the geographical relations particular, while images of a detonator, grenades, revolvers on at least three covers suggest one central concern: the marvellous American competence, in its benign use so humane and liberating, is also an energy that can be deflected into violence that is swift, even scientific, aesthetic. In a poetry that proposes to itself such a degree of inclusiveness, the themes which absorb other American writers—the nature of poetry; landscape and perception; heightened states of consciousness; primitivism; fraternity and sexuality—are by no means de-emphasized; they are merely secondary. At its largest stretch the theoretical concerns are political and economic…. The hiddenness of contemporary power, which makes all of us victims in some measure and which has brought into much recent American history and writing the theme of the unseen assailant, becomes matter for comedy in the characters' quest for "an inscrutable Texan named Hughes" in Gunslinger: "Howard? I asked / the very same/…. He / has not been seen since 1833." Yet it would be wrong to conclude, from any review of such themes, that "theoretical in nature" means the defecated-to-a-transparency free-verse style of a starved diction and predictable syntax. (pp. 143-44)
The adequate theory realizes its own limits. For Dorn as for other Black Mountain writers theory, like the poem, is not enough: not commensurate with politics, the world, or experience itself in its "presyntactic metalinguistic urgency." (That phrase from Gunslinger II, a joking contradiction, demonstrates how Dorn can shoot academic phrases with the best). Hence a certain sadness, and an ethical and prosodic assignment. (p. 144)
Peter Ackroyd, in an accurate short review [see excerpt above], argues Dorn's poetry of statement makes him "the only plausible political poet in America," and then goes on to say political poetry "has nothing whatever to do with the extent of the poet's political knowledge, his savoir faire, or even the 'side' he takes; it has to do with the quality of his response to public situations, not whether that response is 'right' or 'wrong.'" The first reaction to Ackroyd, not my own, is the question: what, then, is so special about Dorn's response that makes it qualitatively superior to Lowell's, Ginsberg's, or Bly's? One answer to that would be to show the nature of Dorn's analysis of the way things work, which moves very often on the level of world-systems and commodities as well as the level of personal experience; to a greater extent he situates the psychological and individualist possibilities within a larger frame of reference…. As against the élitist pseudo-theology of poetry, which is always in our century associated with reactionary politics, Dorn belongs in the direction of Lautréamont. It is not the first time (I think of Wordsworth, Whitman, and Mayakovsky) that a poet writing for all the people had a certain degree of difficulty for some of the people.
The people: not the masses, and certainly not the public. Thus "for America" in my title, and thus Dorn's transfiguration of the genres of popular culture in his writing. (pp. 146-47)
The trouble with setting up as people's poet in North America … is, in one of Dorn's images, that so many of one's fellow citizens are complicit constabulary driving pickups with shotgun racks. (p. 147)
Collected Poems includes a book of 1967, The North American Turbine, the most penetrating attempt any American poet has made at an inquiry, in and through imaginative thinking, into the world system of trade, control, and oppression…. It can only be asserted here that the six parts of the Turbine poem "Oxford," enabled by a lyrical line of great prosodic interest and variety, move through paradox and humor to an analysis (idiosyncratic but highly searching) of multinational capitalism and of reasons why the American poet needn't be overwhelmed by the weight of European culture…. We may call this socialist or populist poetry but it tends in a certain direction, and must freeze out a certain readership of those who are unnerved by any attempt to analyze and denounce. Yet those who are willing to follow an argument wherever it goes, who can accept that a political poetry can also move by zaniness, hesitation, wit, laconicism, sudden bursts of speed, metaphorical leap, as well as by statement and denunciation, will find the...
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Ed Dorn is one of the most clear-minded and consistently serious poets in the contemporary scene. A firm conviction that underlies his work is the belief that because the New World of the North American continent offers to the poet a new set of materials, a new set of possibilities for poetry becomes available to him. If he is aware of that truth, he will refuse "look[ing] back as the sluggish beast europe / at a residue of what was merely heaped up." Rather, Dorn suggests, "Our possibility is to sheer off what / is only suggested," meaning, as I take it, to objectify ("sheer off") what lies implicit in a scene or an occasion. By that route he will go on to forge a new art out of new materials…. (p. 58)...
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