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On Edward Dorn.

A member of the post-World War II generation of New American poets, Edward Dorn (1929-1999) wrote a poetry that, like the verse of Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and Robin Blaser, asks much of its reader. If other participants in The New American Poetry anthology, such as Frank O'Hara, Paul Blackburn, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, and Gary Snyder, are known for the immediacy of their poetry, for graphing the phenomenology of a specific moment, the poets mentioned above set the present moment within a vast field of challenging intellectual, historical, and theoretical matter. In order to reap the rewards of their poetry, a reader must roam widely in peripheral works--essays, lectures, and interviews--and learn to integrate a heterogeneous and idiosyncratic array of materials and principles. With abiding interests in history, politics, science, and philosophy, Dorn characterizes his own poetry as fundamentally theoretical: "From near the beginning I have known my work to be theoretical in nature and poetic by virtue of its inherent tone. My true readers have known exactly what I have assumed. I am privileged ... to acknowledge the pleasure of such a relationship."

To honor this relationship as a "true reader" requires attending to both theory and tone. Although specific tones in Dorn's poetry run the gamut from amorous and rueful to indignant and sarcastic, I imagine that when he claims his work is poetic by virtue of its tone he refers not merely to a tone of voice but to an attunement to language. His poetry thrives on what Pound terms logopoeia, "the dance of the intellect among words," signifying on linguistic nuances such as buried etymologies and contemporary cliches. The tone is above all hip and arch, evoking an extravagant linguistic heritage that makes every statement sound both ironic and portentous.

A review of Edward Dorn, Collected Poems, ed. Jennifer Dunbar Dorn with Justin Katko, Reitha Pattison, and Kyle Waugh (Manchester, UK: Carcanet Press, 2012). xxviii + 995 pp. $39.95.

A famous instance of logopoetic pronouncement takes. place in Dorn's most celebrated book, Gunslinger, a comic epic of the Wild West set in the 1960s and 70s, modeled to a large extent on Parmenides's philosophical poem On Nature. Like early Greek thinkers, Dorn unites science with the metaphysical, substituting the semi divine Gunslinger for the unnamed goddess who initiates the inquirer in the pre-Socratic dialogue. In this passage, the Gunslinger employs the concept of space-time (invoked in the phrase "the heated tension between here and formerly") to explain why in a gun duel his weapon magically "occurred in his hand":
 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 between here and
formerly In some parts of the western world men have mistakenly called
that phenomenology 

Dorn's theoretical poetry sidesteps the regularizing tendencies of philosophical vocabulary ("phenomenology"), proposing instead to invoke the concept of experiential immediacy by humorous devices such as offering gnomic paradoxes--"speed is not necessarily fast. Bullets are not necessarily specific" --and literalizing cliches of the 1960s: "syzygy" (a then-fashionable Jungian term for the union of opposites), "hang tight" (await further instructions), "reality theater" (as in happenings and agitprop theater), and "the target then / can disappear" (as in Zen and the Art of Archery). When playful logopoeia complements philosophical pronouncements, the result is a distinctive poetry of ideas that keeps a reader always on edge.

Among modern poets prior to Dorn, only Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and Charles Olson could be said to have written in their different ways a poetry that asks to be called "theoretical," although Language poets subsequently took this as an aspirational goal. Beyond his modern precursors, Dorn was beholden especially to the philosophical poetry of pre-Socratic Greece and to the witty and satirical pronouncements of eighteenth-century Britain. In his view, poetry becomes theoretical when it investigates the conditions (historical, political, cultural) underlying a present unconscionably out of kilter. If theoretical poetry is not common in a modern era dominated by the lyric, Dorn's attempt to imbue theory With an intimate relationship to his audience differentiates him even more starldy from most recent poets. When he asks "true" readers to take on board "exactly what I have assumed," he pleads for a personal commitment beyond what authors normally request. Possibly only Whitman, who urges in "Song of Myself," "what I assume you shall assume," entreats a similar investment in a broad though uncodified political and cultural program. In Dorn's poetry, the intellectual labor involved makes for an uncanny intimacy that renders his theoretical pronouncements--some of which may seem outrageous or merely provocative at first glance--part of an implied conversation. His marvelously entertaining and insightful repartee addresses the harsh and inescapable conditions of individual existence in the modern world and seeks a fundamental knowledge that would make contemporary life bearable.

The most influential American writer who achieves a similar combination of the intimate and the abstract might well be Henry David Thoreau. In Walden, Thoreau makes an explicit choice to speak in the first person, in order to take responsibility for his words and to warrant them with his own experience: "In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained.... We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking." I was surprised to learn how rigorously Dorn applied this principle when I interviewed him in 1976 and found that he had organized his library, with volumes ranging across a startling diversity of intellectual fields, strictly by alphabetizing authors--thus holding each accountable personally for the knowledge he or she purported to impart. Throughout his own poetry, Dorn adheres to this standard of self-measurement, never assuming that the lyric "I" occupies a self-evident position immune to critique. In Gunslinger, he playfully interrogates the first-person perspective of lyric poetry by creating a character named "I," who is constantly tripped up by verbal pratfalls. In the largest sense, Dorn joins Thoreau in articulating the stance of a resistant individual who recognizes no external authority for knowledge and yet who is capable of the most responsive friendship, who demands of himself and everyone else that general statements must be grounded in direct experience, and who values highly any true account of an arduous adventure. Like Thoreau, Dorn makes landscape a central locus of his project, tying firmly to it his own experiences and ideas. In this way, both writers seamlessly combine science with aesthetics to return the concept of theory to its original meaning of primary investigation.

Dorn also sits companionably alongside Thoreau within the nonconformist tradition of the United States that had its start in England and then migrated to New England. Politically, each one vigilantly maintains an outsider stance that is tantamount to self-exile, from which to peer deliberately into the delusions of the social world. Guarding his fierce sense of independence, Dorn placed no faith in institutions, collectivities, or greater wholes. Making the nation of the United States his foremost target, Dorn joined Thoreau in regarding as the only fully intelligent and spiritually equipped inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere the peoples who occupied it prior to contact with Europeans and who continued to resist their encroachments as long as possible. In a passage that could have inspired Dorn's poetic investigation of the demise of Apache resistance, Recollections of Gran Apacheria (1974), Thoreau speaks admiringly of the bravery and moral superiority of Native American prisoners under observation by Jesuit missionaries: "The Jesuits were quite balked by those Indians who, being burned at the stake, suggested new modes of torture to their tormentors.... The law to do as you would be done by fell with less persuasiveness on the ears of those who, for their part, did not care how they were done by, who loved their enemies after a new fashion, and came very near freely forgiving them all they did."

Like Melville, who in Moby-Dick portrays the cannibal Queequeg as more "Christian" than the Nantucket sailors surrounding him, Thoreau upsets assumptions of cultural superiority by attributing "saintly" virtues to tortured Indians. In Recollections of Gran Apacheria, Dorn exposes Euro-Americans as inferior followers of their own ideals and presents the Apache as consummate theoreticians, noble "not in themselves / so much as in their Ideas."

These ideas arise first from an undistracted attention to the local landscape: "Their leading ideas / come directly from the landform."

Riding roughshod over the landscape, Western culture strives to control everything through the disembodied force ofpredic-tive reason, which Dorn labels "Mind."

Regarding Mind as a deadly tool in the wrong hands, he differentiates it, in "The Whole European Distinction," from the thinking practices of people grounded in the landform:
 The longest continuous run of external resistance: the Apache
 Without significant intermission from the Seventeenth Century onward
can only be attributed to the superiority of Native over Mien Thinking.
Yet they had not invented Mind and as we know their domain was by Mind
In all the treaties the Native assented to the Thinking
And never, and have not yet discovered the predictive Mind 

Pitting two styles of thinking against one another, Dorn suggests we step back and see the disastrous results of their collision for both the losers and the winners, implying that such consequences were not necessary if we had learned to hear one another's modes of thought. Both kinds of thinking, "Native" and "Alien," have had immense practical power: Native thinking allied with the landform allowed the Apache to evade colonization or extermination for centuries, while the Cartesian rationality of Alien thinking regulated the entire natural world for its own profit. Requesting we suspend customary assumptions and attend to unfamiliar ways of thinking, Dorn expects a number of things from his readers. He asks us to resist easy platitudes that circulate in modern life as ways of "understanding" what is happening; these platitudes travel most readily through the media and draw us away from direct experience of ourselves, of the people we know, and of the landscapes we inhabit. He counsels us to temper our censure of those who violently contest their own social and physical annihilation, striving to hear the rationality in their foreign ways of thinking. He begs us to pay close attention to the hardships in our lives and in those of people we know, in order to learn to value as primary human virtues "Endurance & Abstinence," the Stoic survival skills that both he and Thoreau attribute to Native Americans ("The first law of the desert / to which animal life of every kind / pays allegiance / is Endurance & Abstinence"). He urges us to recognize how the vast edifice of our extraordinarily productive and destructive economic activity is erected upon an actual landscape, which bears all the scars of this furious commotion.

Beyond its conceptual rigors, this volume of collected poems asks much of its readers due to its sheer size. There is an inherent irony to a compendious, uniform collection of Dorn's poetry because he was so intent upon the relationships that go into publishing individual books with small presses. Each of the volumes appearing in his lifetime varied from the others in size, typesetting, paper format, and jacket design, from his first volume, The Newly Fallen (1961), published by LeRoi Jones's Totem Press, with a jacket illustration by Fielding Dawson depicting the view from the passenger seat of a car out on the highway; the comic book format of Recollections of Gran Apacheria, with its full-color, Ben-Day dot cover illustration by Michael Myers; and Dorn's own comic book drawings for the covers of The Cycle (1971), a large-format volume that was ultimately included between Books II and III of Gunslink er (1975). Although the Collected Poems forfeits the unique features of the single volumes, there are many compensations: it has its own beautiful cover, a color photograph of a 1982 painting by Philip Behymer of Dorn in aviator shades with the handsome eroded face of a skeptical cowboy; it includes several sections of uncollected poems and also his late, unfinished books; it reproduces the rare mock newspaper, Bean News (1972), which was intended as part of the Gunslinger complex; and it includes prefaces, jacket notes, and introductions to his books, their publication histories, and a bibliography.

In commentaries included as appendices to the volume, Amiri Baraka and J. H. Prynne point to virtues in Dorn's poetry that bear underlining. Baraka praises the courage and wit in Dorn's final book, Chemo Scibe, which chronicles his losing battle with cancer: "Chemo Scibe (he had just started chemotherapy), my God the irony of that is incredible. To speak of one's own just about to be death, slaughtered by ignorance." Dissecting the pun on the Lone Ranger's sidekick in the title, Baraka reads the second word as a Spanish term ("Chemo Knows") that ironically mocks the cancer industry of modern culture. Baraka locates the source of Dorn's cultural critique by quoting from the autobiographical/political poem "Tribe," which ends:
 I'm with the Kurds and Serbs and the Iraqis And every
defiant nation this jerk Ethnic crazy country bombs-- World leaders can
claim What they want about terror, As they wholesale helicopters To the
torturers-- But I'm straight out Of my tribe from my great grandma
Merton Pure Kentucky English--it would take more paper Than I'll
ever have to express how justified I feel. 

This passage offers many of the virtues to be found in Dorn's exquisite use of language, beginning with the tonal perfection of the paired terms "jerk" and "justified." Like the phrase "chemo sabe," "tribe" becomes an almost bewilderingly multivalent noun, presenting Dorn as insider and outsider simultaneously. And the wonderful grammatical ambiguity of each of the four words in the line "Ethnic crazy country bombs," emphasized by the implied equivalence of having the first three fit into three trochaic feet, allows him to indict contemporary American politics from many angles at once. At base, he attributes the savagery of US bombings to the fact that America is "ethnic crazy" and therefore hypersensitive to tribalism wherever it might be found. Identifying with America's "other" by acknowledging his own tribalism, Dorn begins the poem with the line, "My tribe came from struggling labor."

At its end he reaches beneath the straitened economic conditions of his forebears to turn their "pure" English heritage into a tribal quality, invoking the English strain behind the celebrated American folk culture of Kentucky It's as if Dorn places himself among the "mountain folk," "the pure products of America," in William Carlos Williams's poem "To Elsie." Baraka dubs this paradox of belonging and feeling alien "tribal anguish"; it bespeaks a kind of "double consciousness" not unlike that ascribed to African-Americans in W. E. B. DuBois's Souls of Black Folk. Dorn's ability to construct a mobile identity capable of occupying multiple positions is one of his strongest virtues.

Prynne also sees something like double consciousness in Dorn's crossing boundaries or peering sympathetically across barriers. A crucial example of this talent occurred while Dorn was working on his ethnographic travelogue, The Shoshoneans (1966; expanded edition 2013), with the African-American photographer Leroy Lucas. Prynne prizes Dorn's reaction to exclusion by native communities from events, such as the sun dance, to which Lucas was invited:
   And so, far from pretending that this separation didn't exist,
  erecting some kind of self-righteous writerly insight that would
  carry him across this divide, he addressed himself very deeply to
  this sense of exclusion, and to the level at which by spirit power
  you could get to the point where you could not cross the barrier, but
  see over it, and see down into the space which was not white
  domicile ... with intense and humble clarity, and 1 thought that this
  was a true gift of the spirit. 

As both Baraka and Prynne point out, Dorn managed to combine a resistant individualism with a capacity to see beyond his own situation. This allowed him to counter political pieties at multiple levels. Over a period of thirty-five years he developed in concert with British poets Prynne and Tom Raworth a genuinely transatlantic poetry, a postimperial perspective that makes neither the US nor the UK the center of political gravity but instead speaks from an extranational point of view. As a theoretical poet, he requested his readers share his assumptions, but he did not don the customary mantle of lyric poet as a means to identify with people from whom he found himself excluded. He recognized that all of us belong to "tribes" and yet he avoided an easy retreat into tribalism. He balanced historically and geographically specific senses of belonging with the keen observational abilities of the nomad and the exile. For a world today inescapably in the grip of the tribal, Dorn's rare sensibility and theoretical discoveries make his poetry vital testimony.
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Title Annotation:Edward Dorn, Collected Poems
Author:Fredman, Stephen
Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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