Dorn, Ed(ward) (Vol. 18)
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. (See also CLC, Vol. 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 93-96.)
Dorn is the most prolific of the Black Mountain student poets…. Even in his first collection of poems, The Newly Fallen (1961), a youthful and uneven book, he showed an understanding of the techniques of open poetry. Many of the poems are breezy general commentaries on the failings of American culture, but several of the poems, "Sousa" in particular, display a sharply observant mind and a complex imagination….
It is apparent from his second volume, Hands Up! (1964), that Dorn requires a large, loosely structured format for his best work. His shorter poems are either petulant in their attacks upon the cheapness of Southwestern culture or blandly lyrical when he turns to the standard themes of love, friendship, and having children. (p. 203)
Dorn's poems typically invoke seemingly closed events and "resist" them with a multiplicity of perspectives and perceptions. But the poems [in Geography] are deliberately rooted to a political awareness; like Duncan, Dorn is insistent that the quality of American life be examined with stern critical judgment…. Although he frequently writes brief poems, Dorn pushes for the sustained narrative. His genius as narrator is already evident in this volume; his best poems narrate adventures in the landscape around him, as in "Idaho Out," a rambling travelogue dense with observation and mordant social commentary….
Throughout the long, often barbed discourse of [The North Atlantic Turbine], Dorn struggles to come to terms with [Western] civilization, to understand his...
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Most American poets worth their salt seem to feel challenged at some stage in their careers by the idea of the long poem, and indeed in certain honourable cases the challenge has seemed to be that of the unfinishable poem, the poem that can constitute the central experience of the author's life, brought to a close only by death. Edward Dorn's Slinger doesn't belong to this latter category, fortunately for him, but mortality is one of a number of metaphysical topics with which he plays in a poem remarkable for the sustained pleasure it affords. As an accomplished rhetor Dorn reveals his pleasure as well, not in his own performance, but in the agility and gusto with which his inventions perform their discursive routines within his spare narrative….
Part of the pleasure of [the poem] … lies in [its] easy accommodation of both low and high language. Such range is a quality of the poem as a whole, not just of the speech of a single character, and is the achievement upon which the narrative depends….
It would be more accurate, however, to talk of actions rather than a single action, for although the person of the Slinger persists as the centre of the poem's imaginative undertaking, one of his essential functions is to mediate the collective presence of an improbable group of mortals whose conversation reveals them to be, more than anything else, the projections of various metaphysical points of view…....
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[The] most conspicuous formal attribute of [Dorn's The Collected Poems: 1956–1974]—eighteen years of sketches, narratives, travelogues, lyrics, satires, notations in the manner of Williams, and diatribes against American imperialism—is an exhilarating recklessness which leaves sentences unfinished and sometimes ungrammatical, parentheses unclosed, and the reader afloat amidst a welter of concrete particulars. This is not to say that Dorn is an indifferent craftsman. Nor are his best poems lacking in seriousness. Taken as a whole, they document a poet's painful confrontation with his American identity.
Dorn loves the American landscape, particularly the West. (p. 287)
But the West has been "ruined by an ambition and religion" and "cut, by a cowboy use of her nearly virgin self"; and Dorn's eye is as attentive to the "black diesel thruways" of Pocatello and the "dark smoke … from the morning fertilizer factory" as it is to American flora and fauna. (p. 288)
Dorn's tendency to praise the part while condemning the whole has consequences for his style, which ranges from an exquisite particularity comparable to Marianne Moore's to abstract fulminations worthy of Hyde Park…. Similarly, Dorn's breadth of vision, his wide historical and geographic perspectives, and his compassion for the oppressed poor are countered by his categorical dismissals…. But more than once, Dorn transcends the prejudices of his ideology, bringing both compassion and breadth of vision to bear upon such figures as the Kentucky coal miner's children, who
may become garage machanics
and press the temptation
of match cover education
between their fingers
the rest of their days here in the western hemisphere….
At such moments Dorn seems to have it both ways: to combine the political and social attitudes which are his preoccupation with the compassionate attentive observation which is his greatest strength. (pp. 288-89)
Ben Howard, "Four Voices," in Poetry (© 1977 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXXX, No. 5, August, 1977, pp. 285-92.∗
The earliest poems [in Selected Poems] could be anybody's favorites—delightful to the ear and sufficiently intricate to the mind. That chromatic postcard from the Southwest, "Vaquero," would brighten any breakfast table, a tease between good cheer and mockery—qualities consistent throughout Gunslinger and the recent Hello, La Jolla. The obliqueness, the delicacy of rhyme, the refinement, the evocation are all present that early: the ability to summon totality out of the shadows like a skilled waiter, rather than shove its platters in your face. (pp. 157-58)
The poems reward our close attention nicely. "The Hide of My Mother"—in its first section—moves to rhyme like a ballad…. "My mother, who has a hide …," what does that mean? Is it to be taken literally, as in a fable or myth, such as Olson was capable of? And if she already has a hide, that peculiar thing, what does she need a "nice rug or robe" for? "Hide," "kids"—the Wolf and the Seven Kids? Is she a Terrible Mother, a vagina dentata, or is it that she deals in hides as a craftsperson and so has continuous interest in such "possibilities"? Are the "kids" even goats, or are they not children, ordinary schoolyard, alley, day-care kids?… Such wit, Dorn seems to realize as the poem continues, is macabre and indulgent unless turned to social uses…. The ambiguity in the early sections of "The Hide" remains pleasant for the most part, and...
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