The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1020

Gunslinger or Slinger, as it is called in the 1975 Wingbow Press complete edition), owes some of its strategies to the modern long poems that preceded it. In particular, its form and perspective derive from an extraordinary new kind of epic poem, The Maximus Poems (1953-1975), by Charles Olson. Olson was Edward Dorn’s teacher at Black Mountain College, an experimental arts school in North Carolina famous for its stellar faculty and gifted students. The college, under Olson’s rectorship, gave its name to a movement in experimental verse that used ancient myth and principles from theoretical science in poetry. Olson’s intense relationship with Dorn profoundly influenced Dorn’s writing.

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Other works that have influenced Dorn’s poem include Ezra Pound’s formidable epic on twentieth century culture, The Cantos (1919-1970), William Carlos Williams’s Paterson (1946-1958), which celebrates the common man of New Jersey’s small towns, and even Hart Crane’s lyrical paean to John Augustus Roebling’s engineering wonder, the Brooklyn Bridge, in The Bridge (1930). All these and other poems turned away from the English literary tradition to forge a new American epic literature based on the materials of modern American life and the symbols and archetypes of ancient Western literature.

Unlike its predecessors, however, Dorn’s long poem is explicitly a satire on contemporary Western thinking; its humor and hyperbole distinguish it from the sonority and somber vision of Olson’s The Maximus Poems, which ends on a note of frustrated hopes and beleaguered visions of the ideal. The American tradition of extended lyric works calls for the probing philosophical analysis of American life, the exploration of religious ideals, and the construction of a utopian republic drawn from elements of contemporary social reality. Dorn departs from these conventions by satirizing the bedrock of American social gospel—the notions of sensible reality and of individual autonomy and privilege that Americans distilled from British and continental thought. Instead of proposing his own ideological program, Dorn punctures the philosophical illusions of empirical causality, simple time and space, realism, and dichotomy, the underpinnings of awareness that Americans have inherited from the European Enlightenment.

Dorn’s satirical assault on the social gospel aligns him with a much older tradition of philosophical debunking. Slinger’s parentage includes Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1387-1400) and Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605, 1615), works in which a cast of characters set out on a journey and share long humorous tales exposing the foibles of their age. The journey itself is only a pretext for the complex dialogues that ensue among the leading characters.

Dorn’s Slinger is thus a patchwork of influences that have been combined to form a modern version of the ancient quest narrative. The plot involves a cast of colorful twentieth century stereotypes—among them a talking horse, a talking barrel, a Western saloon keeper named Lil, a poet, an LSD-toting hippie called Kool Everything, and a character referred to simply as “I”—marginal beings who might well populate a George Lucas film, who set out by stagecoach for Las Vegas and after several days’ travel stop at Cortez, Colorado, near Four Corners, the common boundary of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona that has long been held sacred by the Hopi Indians as marking the center of the world. Here they say farewell and go their separate ways.

Their journey begins in Mesilla, New Mexico, a small town south of Las Cruces that houses a museum devoted to the cowboy outlaw Billy the Kid. The protagonist of the poem, the Gunslinger, is a campy updated version of Billy, less an outlaw than a philosopher-maverick whose targets are all the dregs of materialism and linear thinking that have been antiquated by the intellectual revolutions of the post-World War II era. His weapon is his quick, aphoristic speech, which he directs at anything that cannot exist on its own terms. His most deadly “shot” is to describe a thing, to obliterate its autonomy by drawing it into a sentence, thus imprisoning it in another mind’s perspective.

Gunslinger’s horse, modeled after Quixote’s Rocinante, enjoys its own privileged autonomy as a member of the group; the animal talks a combination of rant and wisdom and calls itself Claude, after the great French anthropologist of primitive culture, Claude Lévi-Strauss. The character “I,” who comes into the discourse as the authorial or narrative voice, is “deconstructed” into a hapless minor figure who stumbles about in an LSD-induced daze for much of the poem. At one point, the poet declares, “I is dead,” a double entendre referring to the character “I” and to the fate of the imperial ego in literature. These are a few of the upendings or anticonventions that Dorn establishes at the outset of the quest.

The poem opens as Gunslinger, his horse Claude, “I,” and Lil set out for Las Vegas by stagecoach. They are soon joined by the poet and Kool Everything as they make their way slowly across New Mexico into southwestern Colorado, the Hopi axis mundi (axis of the world), where several of the characters soar off into the Hopi visionary cosmos and return just as the group is breaking up. Their pilgrimage to Las Vegas is diverted to Cortez, the county seat of Montezuma County, Colorado. These names suggest the Spanish Conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortes, the first imperial soldier of Western expansion into the Indian New World. Montezuma was the last Aztec emperor, who mistakenly trusted the Spanish on their arrival. The Cafe Sahagun is Dorn’s allusion to Fra Bernardino de Sahagún, the Spanish monk who feverishly copied down several of the Mayan codicils or parchment scrolls before the whole of Mayan literature was thrown on the fire by the conquistadors.

Thus the journey from New Mexico to Cortez, Colorado, follows a path from white settlement and an outlaw’s museum to an Indian shrine shrouded in the symbols of conquest and devastation. Everyone grows in spirit as a result of the journey, though Dorn’s use of hyperbole, bombast, ridicule, and comic detachment conceals the serious motives of the poem.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 748

Long twentieth century poems are formally eclectic and attach almost any kind of structure to their segmental design. Gunslinger is no exception. Among its many forms are those of song, set speech, narrative episode, dialogue, anecdote, and fable. Comedy abounds in all of its tonalities: hyperbole, sarcasm, witty punning, visual wordplay, philosophical in-jokes. Verbal exuberance underscores the work throughout; the poem’s comic progenitors include François Rabelais, the sixteenth century French master of broad farce and caustic exaggeration, and even Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, the great English satirists of social philosophy at the turn of the nineteenth century. The poem is a catchall of erroneous thinking in the century, which it ruthlessly parodies throughout the poem. One is never permitted to literalize the discourse of the poem; it operates on several levels at once to both propose and then explode egocentric intellectualizing and lyric gush.

Slinger is divided into four numbered books, each taking up a segment of the group’s journey as its narrative frame. Book I sets up the quest and introduces the main characters, announcing the sudden turns in the plot by imitating an old soundtrack device of cowboy films, in which an ominous guitar chord is struck. “Strum” is posted in bold, silhouetted type at various junctures of book 1. In book 4, the strum turns into a manic “thwang!” Dorn tries out other “dramatic” clichés, such as the use of italics to introduce different voices into the dialogue.

The songs that punctuate parts of the dialogue are broad parodies of Western film songs. Gunslinger’s song about the girl from La Cruz proffers such pseudolyrics as “she stood and she stared like a moose/ and her hair was tangled and loose.”

One must think of cowboy crooners such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers to get the full flavor of these burlesques. When nonsense and absurdity reach a peak, Dorn slips in a quasi-serious digression on a point of vision, a sobering comment on contemporary morality, or a surprisingly beautiful snippet of lyric that pulls the reader up short.

Suspense, as in much of Olson’s poetry, is rich here, and it is used playfully to distract the reader from “believing” anything in the text. Dorn knows that the reader is well-versed in the clichés and formulaic plots of cowboy stories; he works against them by mockingly following their conventions, turning them inside out when the Gunslinger or his horse Claude or Kool Everything expounds casually and knowledgeably on an obscure point of epistemology or uses an absurdly decorous eloquence in speaking of a trivial matter.

Dorn uses every pretext to spoof, deride, or simply toy with literary monism in this poem. When the Drifter is introduced in Lil’s bar, the narrator slips into archaic speech and stiffly describes the guitar-strumming bard, using all the hyperbolic figures of epic poetry. Dorn’s humor moves from farce and slapstick to subtle jibing at classic poetry; the reader is always conscious of the poem as a parodic tour de force as well as a brilliantly crafted yarn about the modern West.

“The Cycle,” which fills the latter half of book 2, is a stylized sequence of songs delivered by the poet in numbered, unrhymed quatrains that mimic Elizabethan song “cycles.” These “heroic” songs, paced out in ragged iambic pentameter, narrate the bumbling adventures of the Cheez, the song’s antihero, who is the very opposite of a knight or his cowboy counterpart; instead, he is among the myriad anonymous, faceless citizens in industrial urban life. His name signifies his lowly function as part of a cheeseburger made by the local fast-food franchise.

Book 4 starts with a prolegomenon, an invocation to the muses, and moves on to the narrative proper, a journey into space rendered in computerese and regional slang. The characters stop at the Cafe Sahagun in Cortez, Colorado, the terminus of their journey, and another comic dialogue on contemporary life takes the reader to the end of the poem. The second half of book 4 contains a series of quick comic sketches featuring several new minor characters, including Portland Bill and the “talking barrel.” Reality has been transformed by drugs and mind travel into a looking-glass world in which any object can suddenly spring to life and deliver a comic monologue on the absurdities of conventional life. Even these spoofs on reality have their serious purpose, however—showing the “ensouled” world of Indian mysticism against a backdrop of Western skepticism and literal reality.

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Themes