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.)