A map of locations.
Edward Dorn, American Heretic is not exactly intended to introduce Dorn to the 21st century. Introduce Dorn? "Not even a sunrise could quite manage that," quipped Robert Creeley in his preface to Dorn's Selected Poems (Grey Fox Press, 1978). More to the point, there are already a number of excellent efforts to that end. (2) Instead, this issue of Chicago Review intends to confirm Dorn's location on the map by presenting a number of late poems along with several different types of dispatches that show Dorn in action with his contemporaries. These include a cross-section of his correspondence with Tom Raworth, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), and others between 1960 and '62; a 1977 poetry workshop that takes etymology and geography as two coordinates for a writing assignment; and a 1990 interview that sparks from Dorn's fiction and poetry to Olson to politics to Eliot, with various vivid waystations between. The essays on Dorn collected here fill several gaps in the archival and scholarly record, supplying context for his middle and late work (especially the central involvement printing and publishing was for Dorn--see Alastair Johnston on Zephyrus Image and Jennifer Dunbar Dorn on Rolling Stock), analysis and evaluation of his poetry and prose (Keith Tuma looks at Chemo Sabe and other late work; Dale Smith considers The Shoshoneans), a description of the man (in John Wright's memoir), and a proposal for collecting his correspondence (made by David Southern). Each of these essays demonstrates the kind of care and interest that persists for Dorn's work, while Dorn's own words in this issue reveal the generosity, the bracing intelligence, and the style of engagement that make him worthy of our attention as we slide into the 21st century now off to a calamitous start. In the interest of setting the scene and whetting new readers' appetites, the next few pages of this preface offer a quick sketch of Dorn's writing, and try to suggest something of his perduring value as a poet and a thinker.
Dorn's writing is marked from the start by its intense clarity. It can be lyrical or descriptive, but those capacities are always in the service of a more ambitious and idiosyncratic project: an apprehension of the American human condition. The more he wrote the more this project gained the force of a seizure. The best poems in Dorn's early books are lyrical, colloquial, dense, and analytical--often in the same poem. This work is motivated by a flinty didactic tendency that attends to a range of historical and socioeconomic circumstances: the Depression-era downstate Illinois of his childhood (carefully reconstructed by Tom Clark in his recent biography, reviewed by Lisa Jarnot in this issue); the High West of his adult years, and the "cow-boys and indians" that haunt it; the "North Atlantic turbine" of commerce and culture investigated in the 1967 book with that title.
The clarity of statement in these early poems confirms Dorn's claim in the preface to the first edition of his Collected Poems (1974): "From near the beginning I have known my work to be theoretical in nature and poetic by virtue of its inherent tone." Discursive argument and analytic observation, rather than emotive expression or aesthetic polish, are at the center of the project: "the poem is an instrument for intellection" he declares in Geography (1965). (3) This is the legacy of William Carlos Williams ("The poet thinks with his poem") as transmitted by the bookish Charles Olson, most noticeably in his Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn, the syllabus (or itinerary) Dorn received from his mentor at Black Mountain College (where he took a BA in 1956). Much of Dorn's most ambitious early work took permission from the practice of maverick geographer Carl Sauer, whom Olson had included on his Bibliography. William McPheron argues that Sauer showed Dorn how to "subordinate poetic descriptions of scenery to historical and economic analysis of the human habitation of particular landscapes," thereby "deferring aesthetics to facts and engaging subjects with passionate literalness" (13). The intensity Dorn achieves by extending this method beyond its original application allows his investigations to swing from lyrical detail to abstract analysis and back again in a tight compass without losing focus or force.
Here's a distinctive stanza from "Sousa," a poem in his first book, The Newly Fallen (1961), that takes a small-town May Day celebration as its occasion:
Your soft high flute and brass remind me of a lost celebration I can't quite remember, in which I volunteered as conqueror: the silence now stretches me into sadness. (CP, 23)
Such an implication of complicity makes unusual matter for these kinds of sentiments; this is the sadness not of nostalgia (though home-sickness is a feature of the poem), but rather of guilt. The poem is addressed to John Phillip Sousa, the 19th-century composer of marching tunes, who continues to fascinate Dorn in the stark atmosphere of the cold war: "we are / dedicated to madness that's why I love you / Sousa, you semper fidelis maniac" (CP, 23). Dorn purports to bring him up to date:
John Sousa you can't now amuse a nation with colored drums even with cymbals, their ears have lifted the chalice of explosion a glass of straight malice, and we wander in Random in the alleys of their longfaced towns taking from their sickly mandibles handbills summoning our joint spirits. I sing Sousa. The desire to disintegrate the Earth is eccentric, And away from centre nothing more nor sizeable nor science nor ennobling no purity, no endeavor toward human grace. (CP, 24-5)
Although Dorn allows himself a one-line anthemic surge ("I sing Sousa"), these stanzas are primarily committed to defining the social circumstance he finds himself in. His negations deliver a widely aimed indictment of depravity ("no purity, no endeavor / toward human grace"; the book's title, The Newly Fallen, is suggestive in this regard), still tinged by "sadness" but nevertheless inclusive in its scope.
The resolute analytic tendency on display here forces Dorn to oscillate between optimism and something considerably darker. McPheron observes that Dorn is "the champion of abstract intelligence who is hypersensitive to the social abuse of intellect and the celebrant of 'what is decent and lovely and dignified in man,' who nonetheless knows how rarely this promise is achieved" (23). This optimism salted with realism richly animates Dorn's anthropology. A characteristically perspicuous statement occurs in the long poem "The Land Below" from his second book, Hands Up! (1964):
In america every art has to reach toward some clarity. That is our hope from the start. (CP, 62)
A less optimistic clarity concludes "The Pronouncement" in the same book:
After all these pronouncements: What I already knew: not a damn thing ever changes: the cogs that run this machine are set a thousand miles on plumb, beneath the range of the Himalayas.
Earlier in the poem Dorn observes that
Such a thing as humanity seems very relative, the final abjuring of a vision. (CP, 76-77)
In making such a statement, he acknowledges, but does not confirm, the renunciation. Insidious determinisms--of the market, the state, the species--may occlude what promise Dorn has sensed in his fellow humans, but in registering that disappointment he gains the advantage of a criticism that doesn't flinch or fudge evidence to suit expectation. The title of one of his poems in Geography (1965)--"The Problem of the Poem for my Daughter, Left Unsolved," where a trip to the grocery store to buy ice cream for his daughter's birthday party swerves intensively into an agitated meditation on seemingly more covert transactions: "the obvious / drain / of social definition / the oblivious process / of a brutal economic calculus" (CP, 93)--nicely captions this willingness to work with disappointment, to explore it, continuing his poem (and his practice as a poet) even when it becomes clear that it's heading someplace not obviously productive or conclusive, or, for that matter, "poetic."
Dorn's adamant aggression against "the cogs that run this machine" is leavened by his unconditional sympathy with outcasts and underdogs, which from the start is a central component in his political imagination. "Only the Illegitimate are beautiful," he asserts in the first line of "Thesis," the first poem of The North Atlantic Turbine (1967), a book that Dorn wrote while living in England in the mid-'60s, where he gained a measure of perspective on the land he was coming out of ("Off shore I have missed my country for the first time, thanks to an increase of bad news" reads a statement on the dustjacket). A few lines later he exclaims:
oh Aklavik only the outcast and ab andoned to the night are faultless only the faultless have fallen only the fallen are the pure Children of the Sun (CP, 179)
Depravity here becomes a condition of purity, and dispossession signals authority, warranting the leverage Dorn exerts on the monolithic blocks of language, economy, and geopolitical architectonics that he takes as his subjects. The apostrophe to Aklavik (both an Inuit settlement and a fur-traders ghost town in Canada's Northwest Territories) anchors this lyric effusion geographically, and allows Dorn's analysis to incorporate, by implication, the predations of frontier capitalism, a malignant perversion of resource he sees as the legacy of the West writ large ("America / is the world," CP, 212).
The relative sincerity of Dorn's work through the mid-'60s was succeeded by the ribald acrobatics of Gunslinger, one of the few finished long poems of the 20th century to actually hit and make an impact on its target audience. In his 1990 interview with John Wright (reprinted in this issue), Dorn refers to it as "a pageant of its time," which sounds about right: it's an emblem, not a symptom, and stands in excess of its moment, eccentric to any effort (and there have been several) to canonize it. Gunslinger's transition from outlaw to classic--from its serial release starting in 1968 to Wingbow's 1975 complete edition (printed by the fugitive Zephyrus Imagists investigated by Alastair Johnston in this issue) to Duke University Press's reprint in 1989, replete with enthusiastic introduction by Marjorie Perloff, president-elect of the Modern Language Association (4)--has done little to mitigate the delight this "post-ephemeral" "spasm / of presyntactic metalinguistic urgency" supplies as it traverses the "terrific actualism" of "the inside real / and the outsidereal." (5) This book might still feel relevant in the early 21st century because once again we've acquired a paranoid and kleptocratic administration keen on imperialist adventures. While Nixon and Indochina are not mentioned in Slinger (as the book is also known to the elect), the poem is an overt, extended reaction to the cultural convulsions of "the sicksties" (159), including the rampant abuse of language and power in those years. That's one way of looking at it. Or perhaps it's the rate at which it switches codes that makes this unquestionably cool book endure:
First things first he reflected in the slit of his eyes your attempt is close but let me warn you never be close. A mathematician from Casper Wyoming years ago taught me That To eliminate the draw permits an unmatchable Speed a syzygy which hangs tight just back of the curtain of the reality theater down the street, speed is not necessarily fast. Bullets are not necessarily specific. When the act is so self contained and so dazzling in itself the target then can disappear in the heated tension which is an area between here and formerly In some parts of the western world men have mistakenly called that phenomenology--(30-31)
The wild pacing of Dorn's lineation and the vivid vocal presence of his characters give this allegorical narrative romp a suitably flexible structure that allows its autodidactic engagements to swerve from the serious horseplay of metaphysical speculation (there's a dope-smoking, talking horse who's sometimes called "Heidegger" or "LeviStrauss") to the fiscal speculations of billionaire hypochondriac Howard Hughes (who stands in for the "primitive entrepeneurial capitalism" Dorn was consistently fascinated by; Interviews, 51) to genetics to junkie banter to geography. However you slice it, Dorn's aggressive intolerance of "pseudodoxy" and his high tolerance for riddles, rebuses, puns, and typos, still feel salient as antidotes to mass-media behaviorist herding.
Entrapment is this society's Sole activity, I whispered and Only laughter, can blow it to rags (155)
The poem's protagonist--"The cautious Gunslinger / of impeccable personal smoothness"--is a charismatic, extralapsarian persona somewhere between Clint Eastwood's High Plain's Drifter and Lenny Bruce, marked by a versatile intelligence and a tendency to communicate in aculeated pronunciamentos.
Just so, the auditory Slinger returned There are some reasons why I am taken by the beauty of your number yet repelled by your device and the energy of your pseudodox To a poet all authority except his own is an extension of Evil and it is all external authority that he expiates this is the culmination of his traits (127-8)
None of this is at the expense of Dorn's native lyric resource, which remains fused with analytic clarity that keeps an eye on the estranging objectivity of capital:
This tapestry moves as the morning lights up. And they who are in it move and love its moving from sleep to Idea born on the breathing of a distant harmonium, To See is their desire as they wander estranged through the lanes of Tenders of Objects who implore this existence for a plan and dance wideyed provided with a schedule of separated events along the selvedge of time. (45)
Among the several works Dorn published in the late '60s and early '70s alongside the serial release of Gunslinger are the intimate metaphysical lyrics of 24 Love Songs (1969) and Songs: Set 2 (1970), and Recollections of Gran Apacheria (1974), which focuses on the Apache Wars--this country's "longest continuous run / of external resistance" (CP, 283). Both books consolidate Dorn's lyric touch, splicing the kinetic force of Slinger with the discursive intensity of the earlier work. And each, in its own way, anticipates Dorn's subsequent epigrammatic and aphoristic mode. The Love Songs indulge in erotic address--relatively rare content for Dorn--but their tone and force are unmistakably his. In one of them he declares:
if you were my own time's possession I'd tell you to fuck off with such vivid penetration you'd never stop gasping (CP, 239)
The range of registration in this prickly conditional offers a remarkable snapshot of Dorn's rhetorical volatility: from wistful Elizabethanism to lancinating speech-action in four lines. This is a "love song," mind you. Gran Apacheria, on the other hand, contains some of Dorn's sharpest statements on the euroamerican "predictive Mind," which he defines as "the highest mutation of force" in contrast to the "Thinking Earth" of the Apache, whose "leading ideas/come directly from the landform" (CP, 283-5). The condensed rigor and the willful, critically acute cultural essentialism in this book anticipate the ferocity of his later stances. In a memorable three lines, Dorn's capacity for definition (here rammed into a reductio ad absurdum) makes Mind its own worst liability:
Who can tell what a traitor is? To What? His own comfort? Are there any traitors to that? (CP, 275)
Nor does Dorn allow himself or his readers off the hook: "We are the man with the camera/ ... / We motioned the way with our shotguns" (CP, 286). This sympathetic but also unflinching and alienated attention to this continent's aboriginal inhabitants informs both the densely recursive prose of Dorn's 1966 ethnography, The Shoshoneans (considered by Dale Smith in this issue), and the many translations of North and South American poetry he did with Gordon Brotherston over the years (collected in The Sun Unwound: Original Texts from Occupied America, North Atlantic, 1999). Gran Apacheria's penultimate poem offers a chilling perspectival clarity:
THE SLIPPING OF THE WHEEL They were sentenced to observe the destruction of their World The revolutionary implications are interesting They embody a state which our still encircled world looks toward from the past (CP, 285)
His next three books--Hello, La Jolla (Wingbow, 1978), Yellow Lola (Cadmus, 1981), Abhorrences (Black Sparrow, 1990)--function simultaneously as catalogs of and antidotes to the pseudodoxies transmitted in "our still encircled world." Those who expect comfort and affirmation in their verse will be sorely perturbed by the mordant wit and intense didacticism of these discourteous topical poems that take an aggressive stance against the state and the species in the blighted '70s and the Reaganized '80s. The poems are delivered in the tersely articulate style of the Gunslinger, though they can be distinguished by an increasing bluntness and urgency. Whereas the Slinger reports that "speed is not necessarily fast./Bullets are not necessarily specific" (30-31), early in Abhorrences Dorn clarifies the exchange rate: "one bullet/is worth / a thousand bulletins" (15). In the preface to Hello, La Jolla, Dorn gives his reader a "how to read" cue:
These dispatches should be received in the spirit of the Pony Express: light and essential.
The weight and value of these poems can be gauged by the toxic nature of their occasions and the uncompromising quality of Dorn's response. In his introductory remarks to a 1984 reading (available at centomag.org) from Abhorrences, then a work in progress, Dorn acknowledges that the poems operate over "low-level terrain," but warns that "the linguistic activity can be fairly intense." And indeed these poems tackle the political with eye-opening voltage. "I'm not going to be / a martyr to politeness anymore," Dorn explains in an Abhorrence (46). The poems live up to the pledge:
Foreign Policy; another cheap import Shamir says we agree and have common aims. Well Fuck Him, I didn't vote for the son-of-a-bitch. He looks like the mayor of the planet of the apes. Why not let North Korea do our middle east policy? It wld be cheaper and better made. (Abhorrences, 68)
If the transparent language and cutting wit of these post-Slinger poems makes them epigrams (as many have argued), they're less lapidary and more like laminations: more appropriate for a bumpersticker than a stone. In fact, one punchline of a poem (first published in Chicago Review 30:3, 1979) was designed for just such application:
RECREATION WRECKS THE NATION (Yellow Lola, 40)
Politicoes, especially those who "if they had a thought/couldn't get it out/with a corkscrew" (Abhorrences, 39), come in for entertaining abrasive abuse, but so does the "mumbling horde" (Yellow Lola, 63) with its readiness to conform and its hypocritical sanctimoniousness. There's little doubt where Dorn's sympathies lie--
It is time the rulers of this country revived that virtuous roman practise of defending the state personally. (Hello, La Jolla, 31)
Nevertheless, there is very little redemption on offer here, and even less flexibility.
Part of the challenge (and delight) in reading these books is the intimacy of their assumptions and the public scope of their address: their public-mindedness can seem at odds with Dorn's tendency to cultivate a coterie. In the preface to his Collected Poems Dorn writes, "My true readers have known exactly what I have assumed. I am privileged to take this occasion to thank you for that exactitude, and to acknowledge the pleasure of such a relationship." This intimacy is a strategic element in Dorn's poems (and also in the editorials he wrote in the '80s for Rolling Stock--see Jennifer Dunbar Dorn's essay in this issue for a precis of that work). Robert von Hallberg argues that Dorn's writing "makes his readers feel like insiders, at the same time that their sacred cows are being rendered a little swinish" (Internal Resistances, 83). That rendering is fuelled by an unyielding empiricism which in its severity might feel like lapsarian desperation ("If it's proposed by mankind then it's gotta be fucked," he tells John Wright) were it not for the ferocity with which Dorn rises to the occasions he assigns himself and for his sometimes contradictory commitment to public discourse. In a 1980 interview he asserts that "Democracy literally has to be cracked on the head all the time to keep it in good condition," which fashions the poet as a kind of vigilant sawbones constantly resetting the fracture for the benefit of the republic. (6) Along these lines, several poems pay a careful attention to what Dorn calls
An embarrassed language in which Freedom is thrown like a shrunk bedspread over Liberty and "guilt" is the final, hard, unquestionable coinage, for which, of course, there is no registered mint and no busy signal. (Hello, La Jolla, 71)
And there is a reflexive acuity throughout that indicates Dorn's respect for his audience even as he subjects the language to a punishing "road test" (as he put it in a 1977 interview).
It is said poetry audiences have one of the highest tedium tolerances in the business, and that this is proven by their willingness to sit still for nearly anything. However, I've always assumed the opposite, and that, in fact their steely determination is one of the finest instruments of modern times. (Yellow Lola, 89)
The satirical severity of these late books punctures the sated postures of the "scenic" mode and its polite descendents; and it refuses the "sentimentality of exemption" (7) that underwrites the legislative confidence of contemporary poetry's academic/"experimental" wing. Dorn's refusals of orthodoxy most controversially included a rejection of the coercive pieties of multiculturalism and political correctness in the '80s and '90s, a stance that earned him a number of hostile dismissals. One way to make sense of his provocations (without excusing them) would be to read them in light of Dorn's anthropology, which takes bias as a fundamental fact. We can do this without dismissing his critics, whose responses can be taken as a gauge of his success ("I never think I have hit hard, unless it rebounds," Samuel Johnson says somewhere). But it should also be said that unreflectively taking him at his word would miss the point: acquiescent accommodation is the last thing Dorn wants of his readers, and he strained his art to an alienating clarity to prevent such consumption. In this light his uncompromising antagonisms and sympathies may be as much a formal project as it is a substantive one. "This is one of the famous limitations of occasional writing," Dorn acknowledges in a 1961 letter to LeRoi Jones (transcribed in this issue): "Its alignments are like the ligaments of a starved man, very clear."
The late sequence "Languedoc Variorum: A Defense of Heresy and Heretics" suggests just how far the "ligaments" and "alignments" of Dorn's occasional writing could stretch: in it he analyzes the First Crusade ("There were many crusades, / But, like love, none like the First") and turns his sympathies to the heretical Cathars, victims of the Albigensian Crusades prosecuted in Occitania (now southern France) in the 13th century at the behest of Pope Innocent III. (8) The "Variorum" includes an unsettling evisceration of the unsettling terrestrial authority of the Roman Catholic Church. And its subtitle indicates the degree to which "heresy" became a supervising category in Dorn's thinking. He calls it "a metaphor for the oppression of the state" in a 1997 interview, but it's clear that Dorn's own consistent refusals of received authority fit his work into that slot as well. (9) Dorn returned to more immediate occasions when he was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer in 1997, leaving unfinished both "Languedoc Variorum" and his longer excursive poem called "Westward Haut" or "Hi Plane: A Saga of the Crossing." In these last poems Dorn transforms the intensities of oncology into an unexpected instrument of visionary clarity, recording an amplified and lasting response to the world he is leaving. The posthumously published chapbook Chemo Sabe contains some of his most vivid political poems, but it also reveals that Dorn never lost his lyric touch (six poems from Chemo Sabe are reprinted here, along with a handful of other late poems; see Keith Tuma's essay in this issue for a judicious consideration of Dorn's late work). (10)
Hagiography is tempting for its allowances: it lets you make your saint in whichever way you please. Dorn's thorniness supplies a tonic to the temptation. "I dug Ed Dorn," Amiri Baraka admits, "because he wd rather / Make you his enemy / / Than Lie." The facts here are presented in their own light and voice. The letters, interview, class-transcript, poems, and essays printed in this issue speak for themselves. Writers and readers taking up their vocations in the early 21st century would be well-advised to care for Dorn's writing, not, hardly, as an object of imitation (Dorn's aggression against conformity make such a bandwagon difficult to imagine), but as an irritant and a discomforter, an unflinching, analytic, reactive, erratic, searing, and eccentric place from which to pry and catch some purchase on the asthenic epoch we're responsible for. At the root of the word "heresy" is a Greek word for choice, haireomai. The heretic forces you to make a choice. The question is not do you agree with him, but rather do you agree with yourself.
1 / Things could be worse: a new Selected Poems edited by Michael Rothenberg is due from Penguin in 2006, and in 2005 Michigan will publish Joseph Richey's edition of Ed Dorn Live: Lectures, Interviews, Outtakes.
2 / The "bailiwick" on Dorn that centomag.org mounted online last year is the most recent of these, and comes highly recomended, not least for its nice selection of recordings of Dorn reading. William McPheron's concise monograph Edward Dorn (Boise State University Western Writers Series, 1988) is a valuable introduction to Dorn's work through the early '80s. The scholarly essays collected in Internal Resistances: The Poetry of Edward Dorn, ed. Donald Wesling (California, 1985) are another good starting place.
3 / Collected Poems 1956-1974 (Four Seasons, 1984), 94; abbreviated CP hereafter.
4 / Tangentially, see Dorn's scathing chapbook, Captain Jack's Chaps/Houston MLA (1981; reprinted in Way West, Black Sparrow, 1993); audio files of the MLA panel in question are available at centomag.org.
5 / I'm quoting from the 1989 Duke edition, pages 82, 73, 114, and 111.
6/ Contemporary Authors (Gale, 1980) vol. 93-96, p. 129.
7/ I owe this phrase to Keston Sutherland.
8/ Pieces of "Languedoc Variorum" are printed in Sagetrieb 15:3 and High West Rendezvous (Etruscan, 1997), along with other selections from Dorn's late work. I'm quoting from High West, page 39.
9/ This interview, conducted by Dale Smith, is forthcoming in Ed Dorn Live, and is available online at www.bigbridge.org/Issue2/Mike&Dale/M&DIssue6.html.
10/ Copies of Chemo Sabe are still available from Limberlost Press, 17 Canyon Trail, Boise, Idaho 83716; www.limberlostpress.com.