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The relentless fury of Ed Dorn 2.

A Fortnightly Review of

Collected Poems
Edward Dorn
Edited with a preface by Jennifer Dunbar Dorn

Carcanet Press 2012 | 1023pp. | $40.00 £25.00

Two Interviews
Edward Dorn
Edited by Gavin Selerie and Justin Katko

Shearsman Books 2012 | 102pp | £9.95

By Peter Riley.


Edward Dorn: Collected Poems.

The second part of a two-part review. Part one is here.

DORN HIMSELF WAS dissatisfied with The North Atlantic Turbine, mainly because most of it is concerned with England and he recognised a failure to “perceive things English” – “…there’s a harping note in the book because it’s vague and unfocussed.”1 Most of his work heretofore had come from a particular locality which he knew intimately and here he was floundering in a foreign land. This worries me less than what happens to the poet’s voice. There is in fact a lot of fine writing in the book, particularly when it is bound to his own questing experience and allows of his own innocence. But there is also a lot of pontification, all rather monotonously extremist, which seems new to his poetry. The title-poem, also called “A Theory of Truth”, is a solid nine pages of it, all from a position of total cynicism.

Dorn’s position facing the world here should be noted, for it informs just about everything he was to write from now on, involving some tortuous difficulties which badly need the clarification. “Thesis” was extremist but it was a poetical enactment; in “A Theory of Truth” and elsewhere in the book he expounds his position baldly as he had not done before, and makes it clear that as far as he is concerned the entire civilisation he inhabits, and probably a lot more than that, is simply “crap” or “Evil” and always will be (“permanently intended disablement”).

The condemnation is total; it is, in the last analysis, the world itself which is reviled – not just capitalism, though commerce and finance are the principal destructive agents; not just war and exploitation, but the very buildings, the objects, the people and everything they say or produce, art and all. The world is totally degenerate. This cannot be taken for any kind of leftist agenda, for all the “politically correct” attitudes and all practical approaches are equally despised (civil rights, education, socialism, opposition to the Vietnam war, ecology…). As for art, “The fact is there is no art /no vision in the West…”2 The Renaissance “…is simply expanded commercial enterprise”, the Ghiberti doors on the Florence Baptistry “are the doors to the biggest bank” (they “would fit Chase Manhattan as well”). There is no discussion, no justification, the word “bank” is enough to spotlight the core of Evil. There are two interesting lists of places and things which should be bombed or “blown apart”, which includes the Empire State Building (I seriously wonder what he would have thought of 9/11) but also the back passages of elephants in zoos, all computers, all internal combustion engines, anyone possessing more than £5, and so on. “Finally the earth as a primary object must be destroyed” and indeed “life on earth” is itself an exploitative trick played on us from birth.

The question of how serious all this is doesn’t of course arise. Obviously it cannot be totally serious, but neither can we treat it as pure comedy, which would leave us free to be amused by the stand-up audacity,  because it is too insistent for that. And certainly there is a reality to which Dorn points his finger, one which has become exacerbated since his time. But there is undoubtedly a burning resentment and impersonal hatred behind it all and, increasingly, a sense of election.

These pronouncements are offered in a tone of public address without public accountability, and all the demands that would make of the poet’s knowledge or realism are bypassed. The public world is a complete fake and nothing is owed to it. And what is the “theory of truth” here? It could be the claim that truth is defined or created by strength of feeling, that truth is essentially negative, that truth has died the death because of commercialism – but there are several hints that the singular figure of the poet is the central depositary of truth and the only citizen to have the chance to be liberated, by dint of the inversions and distortions of poetical language, from the untruth and Evil which absolutely govern this society. This lionisation and privileging of the poet seems to be something he picked up in England, and it had an increasing influence on his subsequent writing, mainly in a deliberate hardening and dehumanising of the voice, and, eventually, a miniaturising of the vehicle of address. But first there is an interruption, an extremely big one.

IN THE LATE 1960s Dorn began work on Gunslinger, a long narrative poem which was published in something like its final form in 1975, in four books and two episodes. It has been described as his magnum opus, the epic of America, a poem which creates a new era, a “masterful critique of late twentieth-century capitalism”– but whether you agree or not you’d have to add that it is never for a moment serious. It is certainly not “epic”, in fact “anti-epic” might fit it better. The often quoted outline of the narrative situation makes this clear enough – an unlikely group consisting of “Gunslinger” (i.e. killer cowboy) who is known for his wisdom and spends a lot of time expounding elliptically, “Lil” who is some kind of saloon madam picked up at the start of the journey and whose role is mainly to add zest, and a talking horse called Claude Levi-Strauss who is remarkably cool. They are joined by others, notably “The Poet” who seems a naive figure but very adept at evasive obscurity when on a platform. They are supposedly roaming the south-western states in quest of the millionaire Howard Hughes, thought to be concealed in a hotel in Las Vegas (or to have bought Las Vegas to hide himself in), but they seem not to get that far. But off they go and various things happen, but not many, and mostly they talk. The talk is a very slick and knowing kind of banter and is loaded with constant reminders that it is all very intellectual and serious, that it uncovers the structure of the mind itself (words like “ontology” bandied about, the name Heidegger dropped now and then) and at the same time that it is nothing of the sort, but rather three or four dope-heads rambling through complex vocabularies not at all sure what they are talking about, as indeed where they are actually going seems normally to get forgotten. This outline gives a false impression of an easy read, but you could make it a lot harder for yourself to read Gunslinger than you need.

The 1975 edition (then entitled Slinger) bears three blurbs on the back cover, two of the “American masterpiece” kind, but the one by Richard Brautigan seems to me to be the most accurate and reassuring: “I wish to thank Edward Dorn for taking me along on this poem. It was a fine trip with some splendid scenery.” I’m not saying that it’s just fun, but that it is essentially comic and should not be allowed to cause readers’ headaches in search of abstruse significance, however hard it tries. The nominal references, for instance, seem to be purely decorative. The horse’s name means nothing in relation to Levi-Strauss or his anthropology. The pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides makes an appearance (or rather his name does) several times and there is a cryptic message from his “secretary”, but Parmenides’ actual beliefs are beside the point, and chasing them will not help with the poem. These people are there because Dorn likes them. The way the poem works is that of any other comedic narrative: by setting up a narrative scenario with contrastive elements (or characters) in it but of no significance in itself, which then becomes the vehicle for acts of conflict and accident, verbal and otherwise, which are the centre of the construct. A good Laurel and Hardy film is structured exactly like this.

There had been a lot in Dorn’s writings about roaming round the American west haunting saloons and viewing the locals. Now Dorn can make an entire comedy of it by displacing reality into a filmic setting, leaving him free to work with the comedic details. All sorts of wit and wisdom might emerge from it (or remain forever concealed within it), especially, given Dorn’s attitudes, concerning the relationship of language and reality, which is of course invariably erroneous in common usage, which Gunslinger constantly mocks and corrects. The public voice is repeatedly turned back on itself to reveal its own mendacity and everyone’s common speech with it.

gunslingerDorn called it a “psychological drama”,3 as if it were an interior portrait of himself. All the voices, he said, are his voice, and perhaps its success lies in the multiplication of his own voice so that it is no longer the single pontifex of “A Theory of Language”; his own questions are stooges to his own answers and a whole drama is set up out of the furniture of his mind. “Interior” here is specifically not subjective – that “I”, it is made clear, is dead – but represents a big field of objective vocabulary, wit, and stagecraft, at the disposal of the self from its own resources. In its particularly obsessive way it worries about the world, not about the self. As such I think it is a fine read, though I leave it as an open question whether the plunges into writing of great difficulty which happen from time to time bear the same tongue-in-cheek function as most of the text, whether the obscurity is in fact mocking itself, which Dorn implies it is. But I also think that in order to read this work successfully you may sometimes have to put Dorn’s tongue back into the cheek it has slipped out of, that is, to read the prevalent irony and sarcasm of the work into declarations that are fully meant.

The following from Book III, for instance, is perfectly straight, but to my ear it would serve very well as a speech from one of Molière’s self-deluded dandies:

To a poet all authority
except his own
is an expression of Evil
and it is all external authority
that he expiates
this is the culmination of his traits.

When it is read to him during an interview,4 Dorn just says “I believe that”. The writing of Gunslinger does in fact change during the course of the work. By at least half way through one notices a more recherché and erudite diction, more abstruse references, clouded narrative transitions and generally an augmenting sense of disdain for common humanity and its language, along with a sense of in-group address. These latter traits lead straight into his subsequent writing.

Gunslinger is an enormous work; there is a lot more in it than I have touched on and there are more problems than I have tried to resolve. But I do think it is the major achievement of Dorn’s later career and that once you have grasped the major aspects of its mode there is a lot to be gained from it, whether you are prepared to join Dorn in his insistent and lordly oppositionality or not.

THE POST-GUNSLINGER DORN, of which there is about 300 pages, is something at which I tend to wring my hands in despair. This is partly because there are such displays of wit, humour, acuity, such craft in the writing, such evidence of an active mind, to which I sadly find I can’t connect. It seems to me that the attitudes are fixed and predictable, the approach insistently casual, and the poetry’s scope drastically reduced, mainly by the elimination of the personal. I also find intermittently a sheer carelessness, a willingness to indulge trivia, and very occasionally an outrageously provocative piece of inverted demagoguery.

There are, particularly, about 350 mostly very brief poems of a very casual kind which Dorn called “satire” but which are not substantial enough to be satire; they are mainly just jibes aimed at all the usual falsities of language and power as he comes across them, in the news, on the TV, in the streets and shops, anywhere. I believe there are several hundred more not included in the book, not because they were rejected but simply because of their bulk, which would have necessitated a two-volume edition. There is also obviously an unclear boundary between casual notebook jotting and finished work for publication. In fact, the distinction is eliminated. The tone of these squibs is consistently flippant. There is commonly a sense of cruising around noticing the corruption of civilisation as it passes by, or spitting jibes at the road-side peasants, and some sets were in fact composed while driving a car with one hand taped to the steering wheel, the other free to write on a pad.

It is easy to see in them the same kind of force that Gunslinger has, but stripped of the coherence that narrative gives, and pulverised into a mass of separate sneers and scoffs. Many of them will escape any non-American or even non-local reader because of the references, but the bulk of them are addressed with unerring aim at a true cultural problem (or disaster) which is still with us, and is not only American, concerning such matters as the swamping of the public voice in commercialist duplicity and fantasy, not to mention the devastation wreaked all over the earth by foreign policy in partnership with certain industries, and other matters of equal concern. I can at least half agree with Amiri Baraka (in his Afterword) about Dorn’s “piercing understanding of where we all are…”, his spotlighting of verbal abuse; rather less so with the outright condemnation of the total: “…this place, its fakery, its malice…”

Slow Coup

If voting changed anything
it would be illegal

This is surely the kind of thing you are cajoled into agreeing to at once, but might have second thoughts about on reflection; it’s what in Britain we call “Private Eye” humour, and the majority of them are like this, though some have more specific and substantial point to them–

What Will Be Historically Durable

About Nixona there was
Something grandiose
Although this peevish society
Failed even to blink at it.

Nothing illustrates this
More than
When he stole the post office.

a. Yet, it is too easy to use one whose very name is a satire upon all government
(taken from Junius)

Obviously one could take a lot of this kind of thing, and there is a lot, though we might still wonder, eventually, what became of the poetry. But in filling up these writing-pads anything goes. What has happened to the “great American poet” who commits things like –

Proposition 13

People who associate themselves
with dogs
are basically dishonest.


or gems of wisdom such as –

next year will be the 100th
anniversary of 1877

Such pieces are not typical, but they are there. We can be sure that there is a hidden agenda to such empty writing. Somebody is being attacked, somebody always is, and there is always the possibility that it is you.5

I feel that these missiles are issued from a well-protected position. Rather than speaking out as he stands, Dorn clearly writes from the shelter of a supportive “educated community” as he calls it; the address is to an in-group. In fact I am sharply reminded in trying to wade through many pages of the stuff of a very different milieu. I am constantly beset with the image of a bunch of public schoolboys (in the British sense) cruising around the provinces making fun of the locals (the “plebs” as they would call them), punning on the quaint place-names, laughing at people with dogs, mocking the entire culture they inhabit from the safety of their group superiority and privilege. Too often it is exactly like that. And the seriousness of the pandemic threat against which it rails doesn’t change the picture.

Who exactly is under attack? J.H. Prynne (in the other Afterword) calls them “the power people” but Dorn’s resentment spreads well beyond any actual wielders of power and implicates all the shoppers and holidaymakers who just can’t see that they are being exploited in every moment of their lives. The insistence on language itself as the principal bearer of harm opens the accusation out to the totality. Everyone, and the human condition itself, is to blame, with sole exception for a small band of aficionados speaking poem-language. Somebody, as I said, is always under attack even if we can’t identify who. The reader’s defence mechanism against the unavoidable suspicion that it is in fact him/herself is to apply to join the club by agreeing to the thesis of universal rottenness; perhaps Dorn relies on this.

THE NATURE OF poetry itself becomes problematic as all the received conditions of poetical language are jettisoned; the poetical afflatus such as Dorn was happy to indulge in “Thesis” vanishes, leaving only a thin, hard and univocal line of clipped discourse, without intimacy. In 1965 Dorn went a tour of parts of the American west in search of the Shoshoneans, a native American people now dispossessed and scattered, and the results (with photographs by Leroy Lucas) were published as The Shoshoneans (New York 1966). Writing of this book Martin Thom6 suggested that Dorn, faced with the damage itself, stricken with pity and shame, and with the Vietnam war raging, felt unable to sustain the role of ethnographer, accepted his demotion (especially when the Shoshoneans allowed his photographer, who was black, to participate in the dance but not Dorn) and fell back into being a private person without role or authority. Such was the account he wrote.

It could be that in these last writings Dorn felt unwilling to sustain the role of poet, which he would recognise as it was practised at large to be complicit with the power structures he so much resented. But that would be a paradox since he insisted all the more strongly that he was writing “poems” and believed in “poet” as pretty-well the only honourable occupation left in the world. But this privileged sense of the poet would comprise mainly himself and the “community” of his contemporaries, the support of which made his self-confidence possible: for the rest the role was abandoned.

He didn’t seem to realise the precarious position this left him in. Statements in “Thesis” may not be justifiable from a rationalist point of view, but they are wrapped in royal robes of rich figuration and rhetorical gestures. Now the poems broadcast the author’s opinions unconcealed, and all the more starkly in the modes of irony and sarcasm he adopts. They are largely bare too of all sense of place as landscape with or without human figures – all we have is mockery in a desert. His extremist or hyperbolic statements now stand exposed to anybody’s questioning, especially “Is this actually true?” The wit and the deftness of script discourage us from asking the question, but it cannot be kept at bay for ever.

One particular poem has been pointed out to me as raising acute concerns about Dorn’s political sagacity when he extends his reach beyond his familiar field, “Open Letter to the Apache Nation” (1999?). Again it is not typical but it is there. It begins as a commiseration addressed to the Apache nation for its virtual destruction in the nineteenth Century, but then turns to another people considered in the same light, the Serbs. Dorn takes entirely the Serb side in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. Others have done that with equanimity but, typically, he knows no restraint:

The Serbians have every right
to expunge their invaders who are
the issue of Turkish Eunuchs
and who have always attempted

to yoke the people of Constantine
to their pernicious and vengeful religion.

So much for Islam. And, he adds scoffingly, “all in the name of a cure for ‘genocide.’” meaning either that there was no genocide (but there was) or that to educated poets genocide doesn’t matter. The reason for this kind of position is clear enough —

I’m with the Kurds and the Serbs and the Iraquis
And every defiant nation this jerk
Ethnic crazy country bombs…

     it would take more paper
Than I’ll ever have to express how justified I feel.

This is politics reduced to a board game. The motivation is an absolute belief, cultivated throughout his career, in sheer oppositionality. Everything without exception that the USA power structure does is, and must be, evil. You know this before you start. For the kind of poetry Dorn chose to write latterly this is particularly damaging as it automatically casts doubt on many of his other, more agreeable propositions, if it becomes obvious that neither knowledge nor thinking is actually considered necessary.

There are other things among the last writings which are more substantial and connected, though the language remains prosaic compared with his earlier work. They are mostly projects tackling particular subjects, several of them unfinished: the Apache, a literary conference (kind of in-house poetry), various journeys, the Cathar persecutions. Languedoc Variorum, which resulted from a one-year appointment in Montpellier, is a set of calm and deliberate poems going through the Cathar history without adding anything new but reflecting seriously, and extending into neighbouring zones. It would perhaps have been better without the addition of two parallel unfinished prose texts, one of them a mass of opinionation about religion and oppression of various kinds, the other one of his mock texts in the manner of telegraphese or breaking news. Dorn’s version is elaborated but simplified, even to black and white, but there is a particularly effective comedy poem on Simon de Montfort. A lot of Dorn’s concerns in his mature poetry are framed in terms of religion, in which he fervently declared himself a heretic (but was he not more like a gnostic?). His espousing of the Cathar cause was entirely predictable, but who would not? His belief in poetry was pseudo-religious – poetry was the work of an evangelical sect, and the poet was a kind of priest in it, indeed one of the perfecti.

I MUST CAST a glance at his last work, Chemo Sabé, which chronicles his treatment by chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer in 23 poems. It is remarkable, and a sign of the versatility of his poetry, how it can face any mundane thing directly, that he could turn it to this subject at all. As might be expected in the situation, the way is clearer here, the contempt is less bitter, though the poems talk much as they have been doing, constantly extrapolating from the particular towards the body politic, and the very drugs themselves become abstract dramas of conflict. And the old political obstinacy is just as strong (my last quotation was from here). Elegiac calm is only reached in the last poem.

But I’ll end with what I think is the best of these, Recollections of Gran Apachería which was written during the final phase of writing Gunslinger. The result of a course on Apache history, it is written as a dignified and poised consideration of the long war against the Apache, in which the stories are woven into the meditation, which analyses the conflict in terms of  different modes of perception. Several ventures are made, modest but committed,  into the Apache mythos, and the sequence ends with a particularly fine piece, “La Máquina a Houston” which I might prefer over “Thesis” as a less madly impassioned but as moving account, in its careful detailing, of the last indignity suffered by these “damned of the earth” – the transportation of a crowd of Apache into exile in Florida at the end of the war, their final defeat.

dorn_twointDORN WAS A great talker and left behind a whole trail of interviews, in which the questions always focus on his writing career but his answers may end up anywhere. Two Interviews captures interviews from 1971 by various hands, and 1981 in London by Gavin Selerie which is rather more substantial. This latter is particularly informative on Dorn’s meeting with English or European thought and culture, including his interest in the eighteenth century which obviously informs the later anti-poetical writing and, not surprisingly, his dislike of the Romantic poets, a misjudgement he shared with most of the innovative American poets of the twentieth century. In 1971 he seems somewhat inhibited facing questions from students  who do not exactly speak his language, but Selerie is very much on his wavelength and releases quite extended disquisitions. Selerie also contributes a long introduction, and there are some unpublished texts from the years of the interviews. Dorn’s unorthodox and intelligent understanding as reader and thinker is fully in evidence.

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 Hebden Bridge and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.

This is the second part of a two-part review. The first part is here.


  1. Interviews p.24.
  2. Usually when Dorn says “west” he means the western states of America but the context here makes it clear that he means Europe and the whole “western world”.
  3. Interviews p.49.
  4. Interviews p.52.
  5. I think Dorn had some sort of mystique about dogs. There was an interview about them in an anthology called Dog Stories in 1993, which I haven’t seen. I doubt that in the 1970s public culture was run almost entirely on anniversaries as it is now, but that would be a possible explanation of the 1877 piece.
  6. Martin Thom, “The Poet as Ethnographer” in Poets on Writing edited by Denise Riley, 1992.

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