Edward Dorn, who died in 1999 at 70, published more than two dozen volumes of poetry in his lifetime, all of them originally with small presses, most now ignored or forgotten except by a not terribly large coterie of longtime readers and other writers. “Way More West,” at over 300 pages, provides a more than ample retrospective of Dorn’s achievement.
WAY MORE WEST
New and Selected Poems.
By Edward Dorn. Edited by Michael Rothenberg.
321 pp. Penguin Poets. Paper. $20.
Dorn was identified, and identified himself, throughout his career with Black Mountain College, the small, financially struggling North Carolina experimental school whose teachers included, among others: Joseph Albers, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Walter Gropius, Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Harry Callahan and Robert Creeley. Dorn turned up there in 1951, originally as a painter. But he soon came under the tutelage of the brilliant, charismatic teacher and poet Charles Olson, who was then more or less in charge of running the college.
No one got more out of Black Mountain than Dorn, who had been raised among the working poor in rural Illinois and Michigan and had already knocked around a fair bit, especially out West, where he traveled and worked as an itinerant laborer. He’d had some university education in Illinois, which, Dorn would always maintain, was “somewhat corrected” at Black Mountain. A large part of that correction was administered by Olson and various writers he recommended, like Carl O. Sauer, who wrote about the human impact on landscape over time. Olson insisted geography was one of the great American subjects: where one stands and the history of what’s transpired underfoot is the primary determinant in how one understands the world. For Dorn, the American West, with which he had already developed a fascination, was to become the laboratory for his poetic project.
Ed Dorn’s poetry fits roughly into three periods: the early, Black Mountain-influenced poems; the long poem in four parts, alternately titled “Gunslinger” and “Slinger”; and the later poems, chiefly epigrammatic, satiric and political.
The best work is the early work, written in his late 20s and early 30s. Six uncollected poems, all beauties, appeared in Donald Allen’s “The New American Poetry, 1945-1960” – these would have been, for most readers, the first encounter with Dorn’s work. This was followed by the publication of two collections from LeRoi Jones’s Totem Press, “The Newly Fallen” and “Hands Up!,” issued in 1962 and 1963.
Some of these poems, with their irregular and persistent rhymes and impersonal tone, seem to owe more to the Elizabethans and early ballads than to Olson’s sprawling, abstract, wildly discursive poetry and his notions of what he termed “projective verse.” The lessons from Olson are there, but assimilated, and poems like “The Rick of Green Wood,” “The Hide of My Mother” and “On the Debt My Mother Owed to Sears Roebuck” are as distinctly American and austere and lovely in design as a Shaker cabinet. One can almost smell the freshly planed maple:
For a point of etiquette,
when I observed she was digging
the neighbor’s English Privet,
I said, it grows in abundance here.
As a matter of fact, she had it,
I thought I saw a rabbit,
that’s why I came over here.
I said, a plant like that might grow anywhere.
Well now, I suppose you are right
back home our elms have the blight
but the land is flat there
so many mountains hereabouts
Yes, I allowed, it must help the sprouts ...
Dorn’s next four books, published between 1964 and 1967 in England, where he has always enjoyed a larger reputation than in the United States, are all substantial and of interest, but show the poet drifting toward a poetry of ideas – the language is more abstract, the tone is often didactic or censorious and the poems now spread out; the once expertly handled, supple measures begin to dissolve into prose.
Then, in 1968, Black Sparrow Press published “Gunslinger, Book I,” included here in this New and Selected. The poem – the last of its four books was released in 1974 – comes out of left field. Nothing in the previous work seems to anticipate it. The influence of Olson and Black Mountain is no longer in evidence, as it had been earlier, especially in the volumes published in England. It is altogether a brilliant and strange performance, with no true parallels in American poetry, at least up until then: comedic, phantasmagoric, a mix of spaghetti western, psychedelic cartoon, allegory and quest saga, chockablock with puns, gags and metaphysical, epistemological and phenomenological asides, not to mention plenty of first-rate poetry. It’s a mess, to be sure, but a glorious mess, featuring a 2,000-year-old Gunslinger, his pot-smoking, talking horse, Claude Lévi-Strauss, a formidable brothel owner named Lil who seems to be in charge of things, not to mention a character named “I” who is disposed of partway through, only to reappear a couple of books later as the messenger of the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides. It’s a druggy poem, written at a druggy time. The voice, which Dorn handles with mad aplomb, continually transforms from hipster to Hollywood cowboy to mock literary, spouting scientific terms and speculations on the nature of language as it all proceeds, vaguely in the direction of Howard Hughes in Las Vegas. If it’s not the major 20th-century long poem a number of serious critics claim it to be – it’s all over the place, hit and miss, and some of the gags go on too long, like an inside joke among stoned friends – it’s the work of a brilliant, wildly original, very funny poet firing on all cylinders.
After “Gunslinger” there’s a precipitous, rather mysterious, falling off in the quality of Dorn’s poetry, from roughly 1974 on. From the beginning, Dorn’s sense of the primacy of landscape and geography, along with the depredations visited upon it by the state and unrestrained capital, informs the poetry, directly or indirectly. Dorn knew firsthand about the victimization of the poor, the dispossessed and working people, and he knew which side he was on. But the political urgency of the later writing seems to overtake the poetry and, finally, to undermine it. The poetry has turned into prose, and not very interesting prose. The political, cultural and economic “abhorrences” (as he called them), however righteous, are commonplace. The satire and invective are, for the most part, flat. Although, to be fair, some of the funniest bits, left out of this collection, dwell in the range between tasteless and ugly. There’s a pervasive carping, splenetic tone that pervades these last books, sinking them.
But that’s Dorn. Throughout his career, he was the least endearing, domesticated or predictable of poets, always determined to go his own way, no matter what anyone thought. And if he hadn’t been that way, American poetry would be a lot less vital and interesting.