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Remembering Edward Dorn.

The years following Edward Dorn's death on December 10, 1999, saw numerous literary memorials (including special issues of Jacket and Chicago Review), but eleven years later it remains to be seen if, how, and by whom Dorn's poetic contributions to the public sphere will be remembered. The 2007 publication of Way More West: New and Selected Poems assures that his work will be available to the general public for at least another decade or so. At present, there are only a handful of scholarly books on Dorn, the most notable being Internal Resistances: The Poetry of Edward Dorn (1985), James K. Elmborgs "A Pageant of Its Time": Edward Dorn's "Slinger" and the Sixties (1998), and Tom Clark's biography, Edward Dorn: A World of Difference (2002). One might expect more to be written about a poet who produced sixteen books of poetry and ten collections of stories, essays, and interviews, and about whom Dale Smith has written, "No poet of the post-war era addressed the conflicting public interests of American democracy with the same rhetorical force."

But the neglect is not surprising, given Dorn's status as an "outsider." During the early years of his writing career he coined the term "outsidereal" to define what he viewed as his poetic project. The neologism has at least three important implications: first, there is Dorn's love of heroic individualism--the pioneer mentality that sent him to a cabin in Pocatello, Idaho, after his education at Black Mountain and that he celebrated in the title figure of Gunslinger; second, the term indicates an effort to write poetry that expresses radical skepticism of the predominant ideologies of its time; third, the term suggests that what is outside is real--that truth will be found by those who are willing to ground themselves in the actual, not those who try to escape it.

Dorn's life-long dedication to the "outsidereal" raises issues about remembrance. The heretic, as Dorn liked to call himself in later years, forsakes the good graces of the present and challenges how society tells the story of its past.


One possible way of remembering Dorn was promoted by Robert von Hallberg. What Dorn referred to as "the great Chicago team of von Hallberg and [Alan] Golding," convinced him to attend the 1981 MLA convention in Houston. Their aim was to bring Dorn to the attention of the poetry establishment, a goal achieved with the publication of Internal Resistances, a collection of scholarly essays on the poet, and von Hallberg's analysis of Dorn in American Poetry and Culture, 1945-1980 (1985).

Determined to "make the most of it," Dorn arrived at the MLA with a cowboy poet, Dobro Dick Diloff. According to Dorn's hilarious verse account, Captain jack's Chaps/or, Houston MLA (1983), the two provoked various forms of mayhem. "Dobro played the banjo,"
 and laid out the stunning propaganda of a life of abandon to
several candidates who had spent an elongated day interviewing for jobs
the size of needles in haystacks, and in the end taking what solace they
could in tales of the motile. 

Physical, spiritual, and aesthetic freedom are contrasted with a stifling academic environment. A poem entitled "At the Cowboy Panel" ends with Dorn taking a friend whose "nerves are not designed/to take such bargeloads of tedium" out of the lecture hall for "a quick orange juice instead/of the horror and agony we had counted on." When not literally running away from it, Dorn holds the convention at arm's length. His view is clearest in a poem entitled "Complaint from a Worker":
 Complaint from a Worker Hooker, on the Hyatt Elevator
 I've worked Textiles, and China, I worked drugs!
She slaps her thigh in exasperation
... But this is the Gayest convention I ever been to! 

Dorn's homophobia is muted by quotation marks in this poem, but at other moments he expresses himself more openly and viciously. He occasionally deployed homophobic and misogynist slurs in his later work, always with a single target in mind--the ideology identified by the right as "political correctness." The entrapment Dorn felt at the MLA was the result of an atmosphere of liberal propriety, which he opposed with a frontier roughness. Von Hallberg offers the most trenchant defense of Dora's poetical thorniness, arguing that "stony dogmatism is intended as a means of exploration. Courtesy, fair-mindedness, and comprehensiveness are some of the inhibiting virtues of intellectuals; those who are obviously coarse, rude, opinionated, and biased are not, by the academic code, on the human road to truth. Dorn claims that just these inhibitions keep intellectuals from a penetrating explanation of contemporary politics." The refusal to accept conventions of all kinds is a mode of social exploration--an examination of the dark woods that are no less wild for being so close to home. "Rudeness is Dorn's version of literary frontierism," von Hallberg writes. "A poet can deliberately violate canons of fair-mindedness in order to push explanation beyond certain inhibiting barriers. ... Dorn's rough vulgarity is meant to be playful where others are serious, for play may generate possibilities that would otherwise remain locked behind the polite, conventional barriers to exploration."

The tone that dominates Dorn's account of the MLA and many of the books he wrote immediately before Gunslinger, leads many of the scholars writing in Internal Resistances to view him as a satirist. In Donald Wesling's view, Dorn is "an Augustan satirist, whose effects depend on a privileged elite with inside knowledge that enables them to crack the codes of the writing, and, so doing, scorn the uninitiated." Wesling qualifies this view by noting that "there remains the chance that the horde might bestir itself, a chance that a giant public might turn into a great people." Viewed in this light, Dorn's writing negotiates a more democratic public sphere, but from a similarly aloof perspective.

Von Hallberg ultimately agrees that "Dorn's aspirations might best be measured ... against the Augustan satiric tradition," and concedes that this makes Dorn "more an ironist than an explainer." He views Dorn as a poet of wit rather than intellect, and concludes that Dorn's satirical stance "means that he is by design a more modest poet." "Dorn shows rather little of Lowell's ambition," von Hallberg argues, and he is particularly dismissive of the later poetry. "In order to engage civic beliefs, Dorn keeps his poetry specific in its reference," von Hallberg observes, "much of his work has always been occasional, but now [1985] it is tendentiously so."

There is no question that Darn's poetry has never found a large readership--the vast majority of his books were published in small editions by small and sometimes short-lived presses, and therefore tended to circulate among small audiences, no doubt composed of writers and artists and those otherwise passionately committed to poetry. But I would argue that the intended audience was much broader, and that, while sometimes reveling in irony and often condemning popular beliefs, Dorn neither spoke to a "privileged elite" nor "scorned the uninitiated." There is a notable tendency toward tendentiously elliptical writing in his poems of the late 1970s and 1980s, but in later years Dorn gave up this habit. Although he appears to have written only a small amount of poetry in the late 1980s and 1990s, his poems of this period are among his best, in part because they return to the more generous mode of address that marked much of his pre-Gunslinger writing. Attending to Dorn's relation with an imagined audience changes how his poetry is read. The academic canonization of Dorn, which made a virtue of his desire to remain on the outside of official verse culture, also contributed to a misidentifcation of the poet's most enduring quality--his populism.


Consider, for example, Dorn's comment on the neighborhood surrounding Houston's Hyatt, where the MLA was held. "And like all the current downtowns," he observes, the neighborhood is "booming with derelicts and businessmen. /Considering the sorry state/of our economic management, /those two classes/must have a lot in common." It's not entirely clear what Dorn has in mind with this comparison--exactly what do the businessmen and derelicts share, apart from proximity? If one assumes that such lines emerge from a Swiftian sensibility, Dorn's lack of specificity may well seem to be a coded comment, understood only by those "in the know." But if the same off-the-cuff comment is read with a populist snarl, no additional deciphering is necessary. Dorn's guffaw conceals nothing further--its appeal is more simple and encompassing. Read not as wit, but as the summation of an affective impression, such lines affirm the people's view in a general, common-sense way: the economy's in a lot worse shape than we're led to believe, a fact which is obvious as soon as you step out into the real world, the one that surrounds you, just beyond the view from the hotel lobby.

This view allows both the playfulness and sincerity of many of Dorn's late poems to shine. The opening lines of "Denver Upbringing" could be read as inflected with the satirist's mocking tone, but isn't this a poem for and to the populace at large?
 Down by the Mile High Stadium Against a car from Elway Motors
the Bikers work a Trucker over Just to relieve their Denver tedium
 I had a bike once--they took it away They gave me back my knife Only
the other day, but I don't care I had a Denver upbringing
My mom was a crooked cop My Daddy was a realestate creep They never ever
went to bed And they didn't even sleep 

The lyrical voice speaks from the mountaintop--the narrator literally looks down on Mile High Stadium; but the voice in this poem does not reside beyond the world of which it speaks. The poem critiques the same environment in which it remains embedded. In other words, the poem takes its ballad structure seriously--it is meant to represent the voice of the people. In its final lines, this son of Denver's dismal parenting speaks about his environment, but his scorn is inflected with bitter grief rather than haughty disdain:
 Well you can have all my rings And you can take my silver
studs And you can call me screwball And you can steal my classy duds But
I've had a Denver Upbringing And you can't take that away from
me And you can't steal my Freedom Because I never ever had any. 

Here is the voice of a working-class child of the post-1970s control culture. His parents, with jobs that represent the Reagan-era turn to an economy organized around property speculation and incarceration, are ever-vigilant, workaholic zombies who preside over a culture simultaneously lawless and unfree. In populist terms, this is a culture of corruption: a world in which the predominate social values benefit the haves at the expense of the have-nots. The child's bitterness belongs to this culture, but it also allows him to recognize his situation.

"Sketches from Edge water" a poem from the mid-1990s, brings Dorn's sincere affection for a general readership to the fore. The poem recounts a shopping trip to "Cub Food," a low-end grocery store. The poems narrator, very much Dorn's own voice in this instance, observes "a deal in every aisle, every hour, every day," and ruminates on the globalization of these cheap commodities: "lots of root food, caros, naioc, cochuitl/and exotic tamarind shells and subtropical fruit/Bob Marley whispering ethiopian over all the aisles." The speaker transposes the American store with one from Iraq, an expression of solidarity and critique: "Twenty-five yard long strips of freezers full of Stouffers/which should smell like cat-puke if the power gets cut//As in the Gulf War, when Iraqis had to throw/thawed food to the dogs who soon got fat and ran in packs." At various points, the speaker is annoyed by the other customers, whom he views as "overweight ants dragging their take/away from an abandoned sandwich" and condemns as "incredibly naive" for accepting Marley's song as "just musac." But this frustration with his neighbors (and his nation) proves to be a foil for the poem's beautiful closing scene, in which an incident in the checkout line results in a feeling of grace:
 Just then a zippy old man drives his cart up--
"Alzheimer's Alzheimer's, I think I got it!"
 I tried not to look at him, thinking I might catch it he smiled and
winking, turned to the checkout girl
"Sheila, my dear, the girl of my dreams" Sheila smiled,
displaying nice dimples in her full cheeks
He was really charged now--"See this?" he swept a copy of
People Magazine from the rack
On the cover is an outrageously famous star modeling a
bikini--"That's my wife!"
Sheila shook with laughter, "Alzheimer's
Alzheimer's," he hummed "I think I got it." Then, a
change of firing
in his temporal lobes, set off a sweet and very passable rendition of
You're My Everything
I liked it, Sheila liked it and the old man sung while he put his scant
fare on the belt
Outside again, the sun was higher than a shopper on sugar and fat, and
the lot was aswarm,
drivers bearing away their dietary burdens all backdropped beyond the
by the powerful agnostic structures of Denver optically far away, it
seemed, but O, so near 

The poem records a feeling of bliss that arises from an interaction in which the people affirm their interrelation in contrast to their commodification in People. Alongside "Trenchtown Rock" and the Temptations' hit song "sweetly" rendered by the "zippy old man" Dorn's poem negotiates the dilemma of populist citizenship in post-WWII America: by what means, through what media, may the people hear themselves in some authentic, uncorrupted way?


For Dorn, as for many Americans in the post-Fordist era, one potential guarantee of authentic populism was opposition to the liberal establishment. His later poetry is an occasion for a passionate response to forms of state aggression, which he identifies with a corporate-liberal elite, such as the U.S. Marshall's and FBI's 1992 siege and shooting of Randy Weaver, his wife Vicky, son Samuel, and friend Kevin Harris. Dorn's view of the situation was typical of those who thought the incident was symptomatic of efforts by a technological elite to impose a culture of corporate control. In "Sniper on the roof: the cheap elimination of heretics," Dorn observes "this targeted man/doesn't have a computer." He continues:
 this man's hunter is Raytheon of course via killer
personnel in full swat combat dress. fresh from an Abudabi arms fair.
Every jerkwater police force will apply for the grant of a state sniper
who can eliminate the non-cooperative, those who are now the public
nuisance, the epidemic of just plain trash, to be picked up, put on the
stretcher and hauled away to the dump of postmodern American madness by
the lackeys picking up after the Central Force--anyone with good eye
test and a steady finger and no conscience whatsoever at all can apply 

This is certainly not intellectual poetry, but nor is it the poetry of wit or satire, despite its Swiftian vehemence. It is the poetic voice of a citizen who believes passionately in the right to autonomy and freedom of expression preserved by property rights. Dorn's identification with Randy Weaver is personally as well as politically motivated, having also attempted to make a life for himself and his family in the rural Northwest. This deliberate confusion of personal feelings and political arguments motivates the populist, whose willingness to take direct political action on this basis distinguishes him from liberal institutions of governance that depend on the manufacture of consent by experts. Dorn's frontier mentality leads him to spurn society--but his step away from society is lateral, not ascendent. He insists upon detaching himself from certain predominant ideological formations, but not from the national culture as a whole; he condemns society from within, not by imagining himself above the fray.

The here/there, inside/outside duality of Dorn's personalized politics is a fundamental weave of the ideological fabric that constitutes populist subjectivity. The memorializing project of populism puts the past in service of the future. In this worldview, present institutions, such as those composing U.S. democracy, are beset by corruption but the people will one day prevail. The true history of the people's struggles is whichever one leads them from present decay to the promised land of their potential. Accordingly, the canonization of Dorn as a poet of the people is neither achievable nor desirable within the confines of an increasingly exclusionary academia. It is doubtful that Dorn will ever enter into the tradition as it is iterated by the professional poet-critics of the academy and mainstream verse culture. So be it--the narrow confines of this view never seemed to matter much to Dorn; he did not write poetry in order to become another member of the Academy of American Poets, another poet laureate, another name in the Norton anthology.
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Title Annotation:Essays for Robert von Hallberg
Author:Regan, Matthias
Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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