A Fortnightly Review of
Edited with a preface by Jennifer Dunbar Dorn.
Edited by Gavin Selerie and Justin Katko.
Shearsman Books 2012 | 102pp | £9.95
By Peter Riley.
A COLLECTED POEMS of Edward Dorn, the American poet who died in 1999, is a necessary and overdue publication, and, whatever the circumstances, the fact that it was not published in U.S.A. suggests that there is something very wrong with the local culture over there, a fact of which Ed Dorn was very much aware. In fact most of the time it dominated his writing.
It has often been said that a “Collected Poems” is a dreadful thing, and when it is 1000 pages long it is certainly a daunting thing, and there are all sorts of problems in how to use it. When Frank O’Hara’s Collected Poems appeared in 1971 I got rid of all the original books, and now can’t find a poem I want unless I can clearly remember the title or incipit. The first collected poems of Charles Olson (Archaeologist of Morning, 1970) had only a non-alphabetical chronological list, no indexes, and above all no page numbers (pagination being evidently considered bourgeois) – I had to pencil my own in.
But Dorn’s Collected Poems is very professionally edited and produced in these respects, indexed and sourced, everything dated, and the original volumes are kept distinct, so the reader’s conceptual problems are reduced to the effects of sheer bulk. For me the principal of these is that a poet’s entire work over a long period (in this case 55 years) becomes one solid lump (or “Sllab” as Dorn might have called it). You don’t of course have to read it from cover to cover – only the hapless reviewer has that obligation – but nevertheless it is formed into a unit and will be thought of as such whether in adulation or doubt. Everything however various becomes equally validated, and the extremes of the writing are inhibited from challenging each other.
There are some poets (e.g. W.S. Graham, Pierre Reverdy) whose work tends towards a sense of unity because it is the product more of a single-minded drive, as if attempting to write the same poem over and over again. Edward Dorn is not one of those. There is an immense variety of modes, scale, and pitch, from high elegiac seriousness to casual jokes, and from lyric to narrative and polemic, and there are latent contradictions. But all these strategies are conjoined in his insistent purpose as poetical radical, hater of establishment and commerce, towards which verbal projectiles of many kinds never stop being directed, bearer of a fury which never relents.
IN MANY QUARTERS, Dorn has become a hero of the new, and the adulation is total, “a master among masters” as Iain Sinclair says in his blurb. Although younger than most of them, his reputation sits comfortably with the poets of the “new American poetry” of the 1960s – Olson, Creeley, Duncan, O’Hara, Ginsberg et al., inheritors of the techniques (modes of attack) and purposive scope of Ezra Pound, but never of his politics. These are the masters he sits among. And for all their differences they do stand together in opposition to the entire drift of American politics and society in the twentieth century,1 none more so than Dorn. Naturally in present conditions, many poets and readers experience a dependence on these pioneer radical poets which makes them sacrosanct, just as for many of us the light beaming towards us from Americans such as Dorn in the 1960s seemed the only channel to a future for poetry worth thinking about, however much we later learned what our native strengths were.
I think that in Dorn’s case this was justified, and much of the work he did up to and including his first move to England in 1965 could well bear the adulation. He went into Black Mountain College at the age of 21 and was taught there by Olson, but the manner he developed in the next two decades was his own, obviously influenced at first by Olson as well as by Williams and Stevens, but not drawn into Olson’s cultural agendas, nor apparently tempted to run for the academy. In fact for a decade he moved around in the western states, which is where he came from, getting various manual labour jobs. The poetry comes straight out of this.
Now it is winter and the fallen snow
has made its stand on the mountains, making dunes
of white on the hills, and the cold cover
has got us out to look for fuel.
“Los Mineros” p.85 (1960)
So evidently not in a great rush to be an avant-gardist, nor to rush the poem through its own excitement, but happy and able to take on a centuries-old calm elegance of landscape conjuration which you’d think any well-read young poet could do at the drop of a hat, but strangely they don’t. Nor is it without verbal subtleties (contrast of fallen / stand, and an ABAB quatrain end-rhyme in the vowels only). It is an introductory passage, and the poem goes on into a more prosaic realist account of the failed quest for coal, ending
Madrid is a gaunt town now. Its houses stand unused
along the entering road, and they are all green and white,
every window has been abused with the rocks of departing children.
That’s Madrid, New Mexico, by the way, which judging by Google Image hasn’t changed all that much since then except that the coal miners have been replaced by “artists” (This sarcastic tone is something you pick up easily if you read a lot of Dorn). The discourse is still plain and still hinting at its ancestry (loose Alexandrines?) but also pointed. These conditions of stasis and decay frame the central discourse of the poem, which consists of the silent questions of a critical and knowledgeable mind busy noticing details — the ethnic sources of labour for the mines, the disasters, the depression. An awareness of history informs the poem in a tone of reluctant, fated recognition. Dorn’s tone is normally angrier –
That any slob can suddenly ride up in a limousine
and tell us anything, is
one of the world’s wonders.
but still deliberate and measured. An undetached calm is the signal feature of his poetry in the first half of the 1960s, as he carefully learns to hold language and syntax in his own terms, and the instances and concerns of the provincial and unprofessional life he lives are more and more projected outwards towards reader and world as linguistic vectors. He is clearly moving, in no rush but determinedly, towards a version of the local which remains local but of greater reach. He remained local for ever; even on the other side of the earth thirty years later he is the semi-rural westerner peering into what went on in the thirteenth century through the lens of a burning sense of necessary justice.
THE BOOK GEOGRAPHY (1965) is the summation of this first phase. If anyone were to propose it as his best book I might not disagree. It achieves a fine balance as it moves the poetry forward into a fuller engagement of earth and psyche. The writing is more weighty, more intricate, of larger breath, reaching towards declaration – uttering pronouncements on the world but always focussed on America, which is relished geographically but otherwise abhorred–
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxor of how we might
plead our case in the face of Sartre’s observation
that this is a nation where those who care
are the damned of the earth
This condemnation is repeated in similar terms among his last poems, of 1999. There is an increased scope of learning and reference, as here, but still governed by passionate speech – indeed the virtual elimination of punctuation means the poems’ periods are articulated entirely by the syntax of speech. The delivery is in some ways plainer while the intellectual substance and the figuration are both more involved, so that we are more warmly invited while made to think harder. Yet our thinking can hardly be distinguished from our appraisal of the man in the narrative of his life on the ground.
Periodically among the poems of this time one will appear entitled or subtitled “Song” (and there were three little books of them) which are concerned, nominally, with more intimate matter, specifically created because “You see, one of the feelings about my work all along has been I haven’t really felt comfortable with very personal statements like, say, domestic poems.”2 If the work was to be a narrative of his life, as he said it should, he couldn’t avoid this challenge, and it produced some of his finest short poems, in a mode he called “lyric” but which hardly differs from the manner of his other poems except in line length. Sometimes, as in the splendid political poem “Song: Venceremos” (p.196), there is no trace of these motives. “Song: Heat” in Geography shows how far he has brought the writing of immediacy (and love) towards what some would call visionary, and also how the writing now operates as an unmediated transmission to the recipient of dramatic speech by rhythmic lineation and spatial disposition—
the pacific controls our continent
but what controls me is far
less in size than that and far
more burning, oh heat
a continent is my forge
buried deep in the caloric inside
is our relative, the fire
xxxxx the twin bellows of love
xxxxxxxxxx cavity of the chest
in the mountain the door
on the lips the red explosion
in the valley the unlit incubator …
This writing is virtually uninterruptable. No matter where you end an excerpt you cut through the process, and there are three poems 15 pages or more long.
But the old facetious humour is not lost –
I am not amused by
don’t grate my ear
with thin brilliance.
And stop spitting peanuts
into my drink
as you say you adore
– which is only the beginning. Dorn pursues his victim through another 50 lines in terms of a false internationalism and sentimentality intimate to the social and economic depredations of the country. But the critique or complaint is not constant, as it later became. He will also acknowledge the liberal refuges of the local and the operations of small-scale virtue –
Goat cheese and greek olives. The owner
is sullen and friendly, he calls the black women sister
they come and go inside his grocery, one thing at a time
it does not pretend to be a small supermarket.
Cold air, clean glass. We rest and watch.
The occasion for this excursion is in the selected strings
of a life gone terribly lonely. It will be a march.
A frail cloud moves with silence into the window.
No sound in the store. No bell on the door.
And the intrusion of the self is not allowed to swamp the description. But the unexcited calm here, a mental calm which allies with serious thought, is something which later disappeared from his poetry.
THINGS NOW START to happen. In 1965 Dorn took a post at the University of Essex and lived in England for most of the next five years. His next book The North Atlantic Turbine appeared in 1967. What exactly happened is beyond me to say, but the book begins with a particularly strong poem, “Thesis”, which is set in a small settlement in the Canadian Northwest Territories peopled largely by Inuit. It begins—
xxxxxxOnly the Illegitimate are beautiful
xxxxxxxxxand only the Good
xxxproliferate only the Illegitimate3
xxxxxxOh Aklavik only you are beautiful
Ah Aklavik your main street is dead
xxxxxxonly the blemished are beautiful only
xxxxxxxxxthe deserted have life made
xxxxxxxxxxxxof whole, unsurpassable night
xxxxxxonly Aklavik is life inside life inside
At about the time Dorn must have visited the place (if he did) the Federal Government attempted to close Aklavik down and built a new village in a more practical position, Inuvik, referred to later in the poem: “Simple fear compels Inuvik, her liquor store / lifts the darkness / by the rotation of a false summer. / The Children of the Sun never go to Inuvik, on bloody feet, half starved…”. Aklavik survived due to local organised insistence but it sounds as if this process was not concluded at the time of the poem. It is a long poem, and the as-if uncontrollable passionate outcry on behalf of another version of “the damned of the earth” never relents.
IT’S WORTH PAUSING here to consider what kind of poetry Dorn’s is, what really goes on in it, especially in “Thesis”, in view of what he was to do later. It is obvious that “Thesis” is governed in its making by personal declaration, “from the heart”, reinforced by the unorthodox lineation and syntax as the messages fall over each other in their urgency to reach us. Also that this passionate speech is irrational and extends its vocabulary far beyond description or any parameters which would normally be considered to constitute relevance. It cannot of course be true in a general sense that “Only the Illegitimate are beautiful”, in fact by normal canons of veracity it is obviously nonsense. But such usage of truth and generality here would be scorned. (I have a vague memory of British poets who were reading Dorn in the 1960s speaking with contempt of “truth” in such a rational therefore “mean” and “false” sense.) What it can be is true to the poet’s inner vision or (better) his soul. And in realising that truth which is both internalised and extended the poet reaches out to the earth, connecting the immediate with geophysical distance and the extremes of human emotion. So shortly after the opening quoted above, the hyperbolic insistence produces this—
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxAll life is
xxxxin the northern hemisphere turning round
the radicals of gross pain and great joy
xxxxxxxxxxxxthe poles of pure life move
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxinto the circle of
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxour north, oh Aklavik only
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxthe outcast and ab
xxxxandoned to the night are faultless
only the faultless have fallen only
xxxxthe fallen are the pure Children of the Sun ….
It is a theatre: Aklavik is the only place, “all life” is before us on this stage, and it defines its terms as it goes along by metaphors which reach beyond any function of comparison and are perhaps not metaphors at all, but, within the theatre, literal terms. There are more extreme figures than this, two of which defeat me: that the Children of the Sun, the Aklavikians wrapped in semi-permanent night, are said not to permit the “intrusion of food” and the blackflies which evidently infest the place “form a core and critical shell of inflexible lust”. The poet is obviously risking everything, including the appearance of sanity, in the furore of expression which bids for a unity of disparate perceptions which is close to systematic, though he is in no way indulging allegory or symbolism.
Similarly in the part of “Song:Heat” quoted above, organs and acts of the human body (lungs, kissing) are immediately mountain, valley, ocean (quite interchangeably, I think) – “a continent is my forge” and that heat is love. It is not aggrandizement; it is intensity. It does not say, “My love is as vast and hot as the continent” but rather “My love is made on the whole continent.”
“ROMANTIC” MIGHT NOT be an entirely inappropriate word here, thinking particularly of Shelley and Blake. In its manner it is a product of Olson’s teaching, who placed the self as the one reliable access to humanity, earth and cosmos, to be represented in strings of semi-autonomous phrases. But this kind of high figurative discourse has been cultivated widely as a reaction to eighteenth century rationalism (which Dorn later became very interested in) and in the twentieth century was particularly strong in British poets such as Dylan Thomas and those he influenced. The distinguishing question, though, is exactly how the observed details or the particulars of perception are made to become global or cosmic terms. Here it is by sheer pressure.
I find Dorn’s course as we have seen it so far, on the edge of the next phase, quite exemplary, because there was no bullying involved, no heroism, and no movements were launched. With Olson’s discoveries at the back of his mind he pursued the realities of the life he lived and patiently sought a writing which would evince a unity of being comprising at least history, politics and geography as intimate to personal experience. It was ambitious, but he kept it literal and was always ready to embrace calm and circumspection. There is arguably a shrillness in “Thesis” which means he has pushed out to a limit. The aroused self is the sole authority, and such an exclusive foundation might not bear much further pressure. To me this is why, among the twelve substantial poems of the book of which “Thesis” is the first, you do not have to go very far before meeting what I can only view as his first major collapse.
Continued in part two.
Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry – and some of prose. His latest book is The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet, 2011). He lives in Cambridge and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry. This is the first part of a two-part review.
- This includes Frank O’Hara, in spite of a lot of coterie cuteness, in his quest for authenticity and fidelity to the actual as it is lived, in a language-use outside societal norms, though not I think, in the sectional market of homosexual discourse as is sometimes claimed. ↩
- Interviews, edited by Donald Allen, Bolinas 1980, p.23. All other self-comment from Dorn is quoted from this book unless otherwise stated. ↩
- It is at this time that Dorn begins a habit of upper-case initial letters in defiance of normal usage, often for the purposes of emphasis, but not necessarily. Sometimes it seems like a donation of status to the word and its subject, at other times I am at a loss to know what is happening. ↩