The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1020 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 748 words.)